Spheres of Existence: Writing Other Experiences With Integrity

| Friday, February 3, 2012
Today's Tune: All My Best Friends Are Metalheads

Today's post may feel a little complicated. STICK WITH ME, GUYS, STICK WITH ME. There are diagrams!

When I was studying postmodernism in college (HOW PRETENTIOUS DO I SOUND RIGHT NOW), we did a lot of outside-the-box-thinking (duh, amirite). The course was all about approaching traditional thinking in non-traditional ways. I wrote this ridiculous paper about language and how the shattering of linguistic structure removed someone from time and how that related to schizophrenia in Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY and it severely broke my brain. But I got an A!

(okay shut up show-off)

ANYWAY, we also had this unit relating to postmodern anthropology and we did an exercise where we thought of different sorts of existences as spheres that overlapped or were separate from one another. Or maybe we didn't do that and that's just how I choose to remember it because that's how my brain works. THIS IS POSTMODERNISM. YOU NEVER KNOW.

Since college, there are few lessons that I repeatedly revisit in my mind more than that one. Whenever the subject of "writing what you know" comes up, or white authors writing minority characters, or straight/cisgendered writers taking on QLTBAG (Queer Lesbian Trans Bisexual Allied/Asexual Gay) characters, I reflect on that day in Intro to Postmodern Lit and those spheres of existence.

PICTURES ARE COMING, I SWEAR.

Here is a very, very simplified version of what I'm talking about. Let's use me as an example. I am a straight white woman. I am many other things as well, but for simplicity's sake, let's stick to those three descriptors. If I were a Venn diagram, I'd look like this.

These are my spheres of existence. Each sphere represents experiences that are unique to my particular outlook on life, both as an individual and as a member of each group. My views of the world are influenced by the fact that I exist in the US as a straight person, a white person, and a female person. Obviously culture, country of origin, religion, social status, and so many other factors can compile to completely alter those experiences in myriad ways, but as I mentioned before, we're keeping this simple for now.

Now, let's look at my completely-made-up-she-does-not-really-exist friend, Tanya, as if she were a Venn diagram.

Tanya is a lesbian Latina woman. This one isn't entirely accurate as a Venn diagram because obviously all lesbians and all Latinas are women so technically the circles should be inside the woman circle BUT THAT WOULD MAKE THIS VERY VISUALLY COMPLICATED SO LET'S JUST GO WITH IT. Now, let's look at my Venn diagram and Tanya's diagram together.

As you can see, Tanya and I share a sphere. This means that although we have lived completely different lives and have different experiences, on some level, we have both shared the experience of existing as women. Because of this, there will be certain universal outlooks we both understand because we've both lived them. However, Tanya has spheres that I will never have, and vice versa. I am not a lesbian or a Latina. Her universal outlooks shared with other lesbians and Latinas are not a part of my sphere and never will be. They are separate from me.

Now, let's look at my also-totally-made-up friend, Donnie.

At first glance, it may seem like Donnie and I have little in common -- there are some pretty wide gaps between the black/white experience and male/female experience. Donnie does not have the outlook granted to Tanya and me by nature of our being female. However, Donnie and I ARE both straight. That is our shared sphere. It's not much, but it's something. Straightness is such a universally accepted "norm" that it can be difficult for us to even view it as a specific sphere because our outlook is so colored by privilege that we can almost deny other outlooks exist. But it's still something.

This next bit gets very complicated, because now we're getting into certain spheres having more weight than others. Does a minority experience trump a majority experience? Does race trump sexuality? Does biological sex trump race? How do each of these individual spheres react when combined with another sphere? Gay black men have a different experience than gay white men. It's all very cultural and social and confusing and complex.

And perhaps the most important question of all: WHAT IS MY POINT, HERE?

My point, in harkening back to postmodern anthropology, is the oft-given advice that writers need to "write what they know." Here is a great essay where the author boggles when her (white) friend states that she'd never attempt to write another race out of fear of committing some unintended slight or act of horrible racism. This isn't an uncommon position. Other spheres of existence are so complicated and difficult to breach exactly because we are inherently outsiders. The common postmodern criticism of anthropology is that it's impossible for someone removed from a culture to write about that culture with full comprehension.

HOWEVER.

There is criticism of that criticism that states what a great loss it would be if everyone chose to stick to their own spheres, and that in reality, all writing is done from the standpoint of one person writing about the standpoint of another. Otherwise we'd all be writing memoirs and little else. In the end, we are all writing from our personal experience, and all of our writing will be shaped by that experience. It's all subjective.

Now, the solution isn't to rush in and write about whatever race/sexuality/culture/whatever that we want with abandon because IT'S ALL SUBJECTIVE ANYWAY. The spheres of existence still apply and should be respected. As long as we go in with intellectual honesty and the understanding that although we can empathize with another sphere, we are not a member of that sphere, we can begin to build the proper respect and represent that sphere with integrity. The Wikipedia entry mentions a few target goals: including the opinions of the culture being studied (find betas representative of the sphere you're portraying and listen to them), a sense of relativism (avoid "othering" another sphere; truly try to understand their outlook), and rejecting "grand" theories about that culture (think critically about stereotypes).

My point in showing the sphere overlaps above is to illustrate that we do share certain experiences with other people, and we can connect that way. That bridge can lead to a better understanding of other spheres. Shared experience breeds empathy, which results in a better understanding overall. Find those connections. Nurture them. Step into someone else's shoes, as they say. You're never going to be able to see the world the exact same way they do, but you can try to understand how and why they see things that way.

There are always those who are going to be critical of the way we choose to represent spheres we do not belong to. There are numerous minority characters in my work, and although I attempt to be as even-handed and empathetic as possible while creating realistic characters, there are still those who would say I've done it incorrectly or even offensively. That's perfectly fine. I am approaching something outside my sphere and I might be doing it wrong; such reactions have merit. However, I won't be held back by the fear of what might happen. I think it's too important to reach outside ourselves and push for diversity (in all its forms) in our literature.

(At the same time, it's important for us white chicks not to pat ourselves too hard on the back for being so ~*culturally sensitive*~ and stuff, which is a whooooole other topic).

If you've made it this far, I have to applaud you and say thanks. I appreciate you taking the time to read this, I honestly do.

I'll end with a summary: Writing about spheres of existence beyond our own is valuable and necessary. However, to do so, we must embrace intellectual honesty and understand that we need to represent them with the appropriate integrity, respect, and research. All writing is subjective, and we cannot please all the people all the time, but we can do our very best to ensure we write with a genuine heart.

Now, like, go have a good time or something. IT'S FRIDAY, YAY!


11 comments:

{ We Heart YA } at: February 3, 2012 at 6:35 AM said...

"There are always those who are going to be critical of the way we choose to represent spheres we do not belong to."

For sure. And frankly, there are always those who are going to be critical of the way we choose to represent spheres we DO belong to. You can't make everyone (or anyone? lol) happy, so it's best just to pursue your own pleasure and happiness in as honest a way you can.

GREAT post, Steph! A bit esoteric, lol, but we followed. (We think...)

{ Mia Hayson } at: February 3, 2012 at 8:13 AM said...

Totally. I love this. I think you hit the figurative nail right on the head. Woo!

As already pointed out, the way you rep spheres you do belong to also gets criticised from time to time and I think your diagrams show this perfectly.

:)

{ Perca Cappa } at: February 3, 2012 at 8:16 AM said...

"Otherness" is a term I often ponder about, but seldom have I seen such a concrete way to put it. This is one of those writing-related texts everyone should read inclined to writing or not. Great job.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: February 3, 2012 at 9:04 AM said...

wow. this is something that scares the skittles outta me. because i want to show respect and empathy and whatnot, but often my characters have very different backgrounds than i do- you know, because i write fiction. :P but... i just hate messing up and stepping on toes- you think i'd be used to that being such a klutz! :)

{ Fridgecrisis } at: February 3, 2012 at 9:11 AM said...

Hey, new reader here. I'm from inkPageant. Anyway, this is an interesting post. The story I'm writing doesn't exactly take place on Earth, but I've been thinking about diversifying my characters a bit more (physically, culturally, etc.), and these are good things to think about. And besides, we're all human. At the very least, we've all got that in common.

{ Rebecca Barrow } at: February 3, 2012 at 9:21 AM said...

Interesting! I often wonder about how the environment I live in influences my writing; I'm mixed race and I would say I identify with being black more than being white, but where I live is almost completely white, and I think that's what (unconsciously) influences me to write white characters the majority of the time. And now I'm wondering what my spheres would be - one for mixed race, or one for black and one for white? I might have to go and draw it out!

{ Adrianne Russell } at: February 3, 2012 at 10:18 PM said...

I harbor a secret love of Venn diagrams...

Our lives overlap in ways that we often don't even realize. There's the aspects that are obvious to others and those that are less apparent. It's those somewhat "hidden" connections that I like to explore.

{ Cara M. } at: February 10, 2012 at 5:43 AM said...

I think one of the things that you brought up in this post but didn't get into is subjectivity itself and how subjectivity is constructed. Not every Latina-Lesbian-Woman is going to have the same experience, and even if you get all of the circles (as if that were possible) including class and religion and education and employment etc, we still don't have a person (or a character), we just have a list of influences on that character.

In particular, these are all external influences. They aren't some essential part of the character as a person, they are social and cultural terms, loaded with meaning and politics and experiences that the character must figure out her relationship to.

Lesbian? How lesbian? Gold Star or a comparerer of experiences? What relationship does she have to the 'community'? Does she watch the L-Word and actually enjoy it? (Unlikely) Or does she reject it entirely because she hates having to make her sexual identity a guideline for everything else in her life?

Latina? How Latina? Politically? Ethnically? Culturally? Does she speak Spanish? Is she ashamed of speaking Spanish? Is she ashamed of not speaking Spanish?

That's where the research comes in. A lot of times people assume being a member of a group is a monolithic experience. A straight-white-woman might say, 'that's what I am,' and honestly have never thought about what it means, but I doubt it. I think most people have asked themselves if they are enough like what they think they ought to be, or wish they didn't have to be so much like whatever other people see them as.

It's more overt with the 'minority' experience, because the representation is often terribly one-dimensional. You see something that's supposed to be you, and it's not, it's not anything you want to be either. How do you figure out who you are when everyone thinks you should be someone else?

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: February 10, 2012 at 7:27 AM said...

AWESOME response, Cara. You are, of course, completely right. There's no way to get into all the many intricacies that make up both a person's experience and their personality. Thinking about it this way helps me, but it's in no way this simple.

We definitely have to construct a complete character, a complete person, and in doing that, we can draw on their "spheres" for how each might shape them.

{ Cara M. } at: February 10, 2012 at 6:49 PM said...

Thanks :)

The spheres are definitely a great first step. The second one's just figuring out what they mean.

{ aliya seen } at: October 29, 2016 at 12:10 PM said...

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