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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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