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On Diversity and Points of View

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Last night I went to my second meeting of The Original Writers' Group. It's so lovely to talk to people who understand you and are interested in the same things as you are, such as character arcs and voices and readership. At some point, I was having a fascinating conversation with two other women about religion. One was Christian, the other was Muslim, and both have a healthy dose of scepticism about why women should be the property of men (check your favourite religion. It's there). I'm sure there's a joke that starts like that, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew walk into an English pub.

Anyway, at the writers' group we talked about readers and thinking about them while you write. I recently read a book about writing diverse characters, and she was also talking about writing to your audience and about how people are tired of women always playing the role of companions (to the male main character) or the main character always being a white, able-bodied man. So it tied in for me, really, this idea that we need to hear different stories. I know that as a reader I love reading different stories. It's kind of the point.

But. As a white, cis-gender, quite privileged woman, what right do I have to tell stories of minorities? Of people with mental illness? Of people with a disability? Of adversity? There's a poem by the Hebrew poetess Rachel, in which she says (roughly translated): "I can only tell about myself/ my world is narrow as an ant's". Sometimes I think she meant exactly this. Perhaps the most common writing advice is "write what you know". But what do I know? I know nothing. I have no answers. I have my own experiences, which are fairly regular and dull. A happy childhood. No real adversity. Two healthy children. A quiet life.

In a way, I do write what I know. If you've been reading my blog, you know that I rarely have answers. I write both sides of the argument and try to see any topic from multiple points of view before I decide what my point of view is. And even then, if I read or hear something new or talk to someone with a point of view I haven't thought about, I may change my mind. I'd make a terrible guru. When I write fiction, I also write about fairly ordinary people trying to figure out what their place is in the world. And there are never real answers. My characters do not discover that love is the most important thing or that you can't run away from who you are. They discover that life is messy, and you just muddle along as best you can.

And I come back to the conversation I had with an ex-Christian and an ex-Muslim, as an atheist with Jewish heritage. And for me, these conversations with other people are the windows to other people's worlds. That's why I collect people. Not so that I can tell their stories. Their stories are not mine to tell. But so that I get a glimpse of what it's like to be someone else. And maybe to widen my world just a little.


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