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If You Write About an Issue, Do It Justice

Yesterday, I talked about the difference between situation and plot and I used some examples of life issues, one of which was a kid with a parent addicted to meth. In response, a reader named Alan wrote this:

Other than the gay issue, plot or not, it’s a story that can only be told by someone who is living the story. It’s not a one book or essay or short story, it’s a never ending saga and life style. Please do it justice if any of you pursue this issue (meth) and the destruction of the family.

This raises the bigger question: do people who are not living a certain story have a “right” to pursue it in fiction? I personally happen to both agree and disagree with Alan’s comment, which is why I wanted to dig into it here. I agree with the fact that people who write about a certain issue need to roll up their sleeves, dig in and absolutely do it justice. (For this post, yesterday’s post and future posts, an “issue book” is one that deals with one of the many more serious problems or predicaments that a teen might face in their coming of age: drugs, sex, rape, discrimination, sexual orientation, abuse, divorce, alcoholism, death in the family, pregnancy, abortion, eating disorders, immigration, legal trouble, murder, crime, running away, etc. These issues will figure more heavily into a story and a plot than, say, a lying friend or a bad grade on a math test.)

However, I disagree with the idea that only people who have lived through something can write about it. For certain books — like memoir — this is very true, obviously. Also, it does happen that some of the most comprehensive and gripping issue books tend to be written by people who have lived certain experiences. Ellen Hopkins’ breakout, CRANK, came directly from family experience and I don’t know if she would’ve been inspired to write it or if she could speak with such authority if she didn’t have this front lines perspective on meth and drug addiction. Still, what if men only wrote books from the male POV? What if gay people only wrote gay characters, or straight people only wrote straight characters? What if I could only write about white, middle class, female, Russian literary agents? I’m exaggerating to prove a point here but I think you get it.

Most issue books, in my opinion, need to start with character. And remember, every character is different. Some people who suffered rape think of themselves as victims. Others think of themselves as survivors. Every person reacts to an issue differently, so there’s not one way to tell a rape story or a meth story or a gay story. So the character and their story should really be your starting point. Besides, a lot of people who really did live through an experience are emotionally invested in it. They may not be able to separate their experience from a fictional story with all the moving parts of other, wholly fictional novels on the shelves. As a result, they may only be able to think of a particular issue in one context. That’s not bad, but it is important to remember that there are many different experiences for every issue out there. How do you make sure you’re writing a valid character having a valid issue experience? There’s a fantastic thing called research, and more fiction writers need to use it.

If you are writing about a person who has been adopted, go interview people who have had different adoption experiences. Interview people in closed and open adoptions, people whose parents raised them with the awareness that they were adopted and people whose parents did not, people who ended up with a great adoptive family and those who never quite bonded. Go interview mothers who gave up their children for adoption. Those who are grateful for their choice and those who regret it. Even if the birth mother is not a character in your story, you need to understand the issue from all sides. Interview an adoption counselor who matches families with birth mothers or a doctor who counsels or treats a lot of pregnant teens who are grappling with this choice. Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah, but how are you going to understand this issue and these characters if you just make it all up?

Do the same level of research, with the same layers, for all the issues you choose to write about. If you really care about an issue, if you really want your book to be authentic, if you want people who have lived this issue to read your work (and they will) and respect it, do research. There’s so much to be said for having a fantastic imagination, sure. But there’s even more to be said for knowing the limits of your imagination and for reaching out to people who might give you information, details, scenes and experiences that are totally new to you. Sometimes, something made up by you is the perfect thought, image or turn of phrase for a certain moment. Sometimes, though, you will find something in your research that will change your story, change a scene, add just the perfect touch of authenticity to what you’re writing. A thought. An image. A bit of dialogue. A certain term that only “insiders” use. These details will only make your manuscript better.

Good writers know that they are not an island. They can’t possibly — nor should they — be expected to fabricate absolutely everything. They need “authenticating details” and they need to really be invested, emotionally and intellectually, in the issues they write about. So Alan’s concern for doing the issue justice is very much at the front of my mind. However, I think that a fantastic writer can take on any subject and, by augmenting their imagination with really comprehensive research, write a compelling book that rings true. If we could only write what we’ve lived through, we’d be limiting ourselves and the book market. Plus, we wouldn’t have great stories from masterful storytellers like Laurie Halse Anderson, who has written about issues from rape to anorexia with absolute clarity and respect. And that’s what you need when tackling an issue book, I think. It’s definitely not the easy way to go but it is very important work.

As one reader posted, in response to Alan’s comment:

Hmmm, Alan’s comment made me think. I have a experience with a number of subjects that could be touchy (being gay, living with an alcoholic sibling, suicide in the family). I’ve never had a problem with someone writing about these things who doesn’t have any experience. But I’ll tell you what…a lack of authenticity really sticks out to me. And it’s kept me from doing things like writing from a male perspective or a different race or about addiction.

I wonder how many people write from unfamiliar situations and how often that’s done well.

I think the point we’re coming back to is authenticity and that it does have to be done well, and that’s pretty much the bottom line.

(By the way, if anyone has a phenomenal issue book that’s been backed with lots of great research and where the issue isn’t the only plot point, I’d love to see it!)

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  1. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    In the book I am writing, I deal with many issues. Death being the predominant theme. At the same time this is also partly fantasy. (I don’t think I need to say that people who write fantasy have not experienced it…obviously, but they write about different worlds that they create and understand every element of.)

    I agree with Mary, you don’t absolutely have to go through something to write about it. In drama (years ago) I was told by a teacher to pull from things that we have gone through in life to put emotion into the characters we were portraying. We may not have gone through the same situation in our life, but there are many experiences that create similar emotions.

    For example, I moved A LOT as a teen. I changed school every year (and sometimes twice) from 7th grade all the way up until I graduated. Now, I my family wasn’t in the military, but I had similar experiences as a military brat, having lived in Germany by a base and having several friends whose families were in the military. I therefore chose to have my MC be a military brat, because I thought people could relate to that kind of person better. (and it was more interesting to me).

    That being said, I also know (my Uncle), a rocket scientist, but I wouldn’t ever dream of writing a book from a person’s POV with that type of background. Some things we can ‘fake’ and others we cannot. I think we (should) know what we can pull off and what we can’t.

    My book, like I said deals with death, alot. In my life I have dealt with death…a lot. So, I write about it. It creates emotion and it is something I can portray well because I have been there. (I don’t really think that is something someone should write about who has no idea what it is like).

    Anyway, what I am trying to say is: know your strengths. Thanks Mary.

  2. Sheri Larsen’s avatar

    To write about anything, one definitely must do the research. If the topic is something that has personally affected your life, then you as the writer can use that platform to build from; however, if that’s not the case do the research and take time to step into those peoples’ shoes. Either way, justice can be done if one is determined to get the story out.

  3. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    I had the opportunity to read a phenomenal “issue” book called INCONVENIENT by Margie Gelbwasser. It’s not out until November but it deals with alcoholism in a Russian Jewish family. Not only did Margie handle the alcoholism heroically, but it’s her characters who really stand out. I think that’s what makes it a great book. I’m not sure if she wrote from experience or did research or what, but it felt wholly authentic.

    What made it great was that, like you mentioned, the characters came first. I didn’t feel preached to or like she had an agenda. It was a great story first, and an “issue” book second.

  4. Krista V.’s avatar

    Thanks for this, Mary. This is especially timely advice for where I’m at right now. One of the characters in my WIP just wasn’t cutting it because I have zero personal experience with the issue she faces, so I checked out some memoirs (about child soldiers) from the library and have been plowing through those.

    (I’d like to do more research on this issue, but I’m not sure where to go from here. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.)

    If nothing else, doing this research has educated me on things that my Western education glossed over. And I’m all about being a lifelong learner.

  5. Olleymae’s avatar

    Great great point. I don’t care how much someone raves about a book, if it portrays an issue I’ve experienced in an unrealistic, shallow, or stereotyped way, my bs-ometer goes off and I have to put the book down.

  6. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    So true Mary. Two books came to mind for me as far as memoir or taking a situation you’ve faced and writing about it. The Lovely Bones and Glass Castles. I think these books did so well because we saw the other side as opposed to constant sorrow and sadness (I mean yeah they were sad, but…) I love that! You have brought up a great point, thanks for this Mary!

  7. Wendy Delfosse’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary! I definitely haven’t lived through the issues in my issue-book, but I still want to write them with authenticity. This is great encouragement to keep persevering & solidly researching. If you combine this advice with the advice about finding solid, willing-to-be-brutal, critique partners/beta-readers you can really help that draft shine. I have the “issue” parts of my novel out with someone right now to check for that very thing before I begin submitting it. I’d rather hear I need to do more research now rather than querying too early.

  8. hannah moskowitz’s avatar

    I’ve had issues with books such as Patricia McCormick’s CUT that to me feel like a shallow treatment of an issue. As far as I’ve read, she researched the book by interviewing teenagers who self-injure, and that was her only connection to cutting. I don’t know if my problems with the book stem from her lack of experience on the issue.

    I COMPLETELY disagree with lumping “gay books” in with these issue books, however. Being gay is not an issue. It’s a facet of a character. “Coming out” can be an issue, or “facing homophobia,” but being gay is not an issue. I have a manuscript where my two main characters are gay, but that’s certainly not what the book is about. It’s just who my characters are. The main plot is completely separate, and would have been just the same if my characters were heterosexual. That’s just…not who they are.

  9. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Ooh, good post. Wasn’t there a famous example of a white woman writing from a black POV and lots of folks were outraged even though the book was great? I read a thread about it on Verla Kay’s forums… I’ll try to find it.

    I grappled with this issue while writing my PB Elephant Love, in which the MC is a little girl living in a South African shantytown. I wondered if there might be other people who felt they had more of a ‘right’ to write this kind of story than I did. I’m white, grew up in London, UK, with no money worries… hardly someone who could claim to have experienced what my MC does!

    But my story came from a real one – of an existing school for kids from the local shantytown, which the story was based on. So I interviewed and also visited twice (the woman who runs the school is a close friend of mine). Even so, I will still feel nervous when someone who lives in a shantytown reads the story (when/if it gets published, it’s under consideration at Jabberwocky). Nervous and really, really excited, because I hope they love the story as much as I do!

    I also think researching is half the fun of writing, but then I’m a nosy person who likes digging into other people’s lives and discovering stuff about other places. Writing is a nosy person’s ideal job, I think!

  10. Franziska Green’s avatar

    PS Thinking the book I’m thinking of may well have been Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, who you mention.

  11. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    To stretch your idea a little further — if people could only write what they’ve personally experienced, we wouldn’t have any historical fiction. It’s intimidating to try to recreate people, lifestyles, events, or attitudes from past times. Yet as a reader I am very grateful for the writers who do the research that brings those times to life.

  12. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    @ Franziska – It’s funny you mention Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson. She was just nominated for a Carnegie for that book and gave me a great quote for my blog today :) Her books are AMAZING :)

  13. Alan Nash’s avatar

    Thanks Mary, I agree with you 100 % If you are an outsider looking in please, put the shoes on it will authenticate your work and be appreciated much more by those who are living the story…Thanks again…to everyone !

  14. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Mary, thanks for pointing out the obvious. Experience is a bonus. Authenticity is a must.

  15. Joan’s avatar

    I love what you said about being emotionally and intellectually invested.

    Doing a bunch of intellectual research won’t do any good if you can’t emotionally connect on a level that produces sympathy and understanding for/about the people/issue.

    Even if you have experienced an issue on a personal level, research is important to understand more than just your own views. It might even help you gain the distance you need to write about a tough topic.

  16. Kristen F’s avatar

    I just read an awesome YA book called Emily the Strange, with a perfect teenage girl voice, and it was written by two guys.

    I love love love your blog to absolute pieces, and you completely rock in every way. Instead of “gave up for adoption” – it’s “placed for adoption.” Yes? Mwah!

  17. Brian H’s avatar

    Often, the person who is “living” the issue is just too close to write about it with clarity, and with the kind of insight and objectivity that makes good fiction. Lived experience can lead to a certain tunnel vison – it will be good memoir, but will not necessarily have the clear perspective that will inform the reader in the way fiction should: ie “look at it this way” rather than just “look at it”. Fine writers can, using imagination, empathy and research, tell us so much more about ANY issue than loads of us who have lived it. Indeed, the job of the writer is precisely that – to inform even those who have lived through “it” about what “it” might mean in a broader sense than individual experience.

  18. Ellen Hopkins’s avatar

    Post-CRANK, I have written about teen suicide, physical abuse, sexual abuse, cutting, depression, eating disorders, prostitution, etc. None of those issues have touched me personally, but they have touched people I know or who I’ve talked to (either readers or through my research). The books ALWAYS start with characters (people). NOT story or plot. By creating three-dimensional, multi-layered characters (people), these books all ring authentic. (Ask my readers.)

    Story (and IMHO, even genre stories) should be about people. I have also written male perspective, gay perspective and even in the book I’m currently writing, black perspective. I am none of those things. But I know many people who are. I hope more writers step outside their comfort zone and learn to create characters who walk off the page. In the process, you develop understanding of people different than you, and bring that understanding to your readers.

  19. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Anyone who has the talent and has done their homework can write about anything. Nothing is off limits. Last year, I went to a workshop that explained the pitfalls of writing about a different race. There were several comments from other people that really bothered me. Most of what people said created the “other”.

    Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we writing about our common humanity? Isn’t writing about stepping into someone else’s shoes? Just do your homework.

    I agree that those who have lived through something or are a part of that group or gender have a unique perspective. But they don’t own authenticity.

  20. Marybk’s avatar

    Do you think good writers (as a whole) have empathy as one of their strengths?

    Research is a must, of course. But unless a writer can feels the emotions through those other eyes, the research will fall short. And then those feelings have to be filtered through the character who you’ve created, expressed uniquely to the end.

    I guess I’m just saying it’s the research/understanding mixed with the empathy that makes for a great read.

  21. MaryWitzl’s avatar

    This is so thoughtfully written, and I completely agree.

    If we could only write what we’ve experienced ourselves, there would be no historical novels. And what a terrible shame.

  22. Diana Murray’s avatar

    Great post. I have written picture book manuscripts about witches and all sorts of odd characters, both human and animal. My inspiration is often personal, but that doesn’t mean I have to be a witch or an elephant to write about one. I know this was meant mostly for novel writers, but it still holds true. Do your research and write from the heart.

  23. cj omololu’s avatar

    Great post! I’m so late to the comments that I did a big post of my own on the subject for Dirty Little Secrets.

  24. Julie Hedlund’s avatar

    Jacqueline Woodson said something in her speech at the NY SCBWI conference that has stayed with me. She said stories don’t have to be physically autobiographical, but they have to be emotionally autobiographical.

    The research brings the authenticity, but we must also have respect and compassion when we are writing about issues we have not ourselves faced or from a POV very different from our own. You must also take what you do know and make that work for you in your story.

    Although not a children’s book, one of the best examples of someone taking on an issue with compassion and grace was Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex. Yes, he is a Greek-American who grew up in Detroit in an immigrant family, and he used that background well. He is not, however, a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who decides to become a boy as an adolescent. Nor are most people. Yet you could hardly find a more brilliant story or character.

    In a YA example, Libba Bray is not a 16 year-old boy who was diagnosed with mad cow disease, but you’d never know that from reading Going Bovine. And the list could go on and on.

    Sometimes, too, we are writing about who we want to be rather than who we are. Or someone we were that we grew out of. There are many different ways to make a story, but I absolutely agree that research is essential to fill in factual and emotional details that are unfamiliar in a given situation. That and a lot of compassion and humility.

    Amazing, thought-provoking post!

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