On Writing: Diversity and the 21st Century Writer (Part 1)

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This otter has nothing to do with this blog post but people are more likely to read blogs with pictures and everyone like otters.

I think about writing a lot. I don’t mean that I just think about the act of writing (which I do) but also that I think about writing and the role of a writer in a larger context. I think about the craft, the profession, the passion of writing. I think about the role of the storyteller in society and how I identify with that role and often feel challenged by it. I knew that I wanted to be a writer the way I imagine people know they want to devote their lives to faith or service; I was compelled, I was entranced, I was called before I was even old enough to have the right words for it. Writing isn’t just something I do; it’s something I am.  In these blogs I’m discussing my points of view on writing and I’m also talking about who I am and the things that are most important to me.

Right now I’m spending a lot of time thinking diversity in content creation. I think it’s the most complicated and important topic for contemporary storytellers that cuts right to the center of the role of a creator. I’ve been trying to figure out how exactly I wanted to cover it here because I have a lot more to say about the topic than a single blog post can sum up. I’ve ultimately decided to just begin with the first of a series of posts on the topic that could going go on, in no formal schedule, for months or years. I hope you’ll stay with me and consider joining this conversation along the way.

I want to be clear about what I’m going to talk about in this part. I’m not omitting or glossing over things as much as I am breaking things up to manageable (readable) pieces. In this post I’m going to give my definition of the topic and terms and I’m going to lay out four key reasons why other creators should give this topic as much consideration as I have. This post is going to be less jokey and more philosophical than usual so if you want snark and one-liners check out some of my other posts and be patient – I’ll have more snark soon. Let’s get started!

This otter is also not related to this blog post but damn, it's adorable, amiright?

This otter is also not related to this blog post but damn, it’s adorable, amiright?

First, a lot of people use the term “diversity” and sometimes we don’t always agree on what it means. This is what it means to me: diversity is the world I see outside the window. I don’t mean the literal window. The window at my desk literally looks at my neighbor’s side yard and a lot of weeds. I mean the window I look through to the world that includes the folks I see in my neighborhood, in downtown Portland, in every other place I’ve been from New York City to Paris, in all of the news and media I consume, and in my social circles both physical and digital. Realistically, as curious and affable and slightly-above-average traveled as I am, I’ve only really seen the smallest, most limited fraction of the world, but to me, diversity, is recognizing the incredible richness and variety in that fraction and trying, humbly and honestly, to represent it. Yes, diversity is about being aware of the differences between people- the differences in their skin, their eyes, hair, gender, beliefs, wants, desires, and identities- but it’s also about their commonalities. If all you see is how people are different you’re doing it wrong and you’re missing the real core of diversity. Let’s not minimize it – there are differences between us sometimes that are substantial and no amount of cross-stitched pithy wisdom (or white dude bloggery) could or should homogenize us into one big generic bunch – BUT there is always a common humanity. Diversity, as I’m going to use it here and onward, is about acknowledging and embracing the whole spectrum of people you see” outside your window and attempting, with empathy and curiosity, to connect to it.

Writer philosophy digression: you know how Mark Twain said “write what you know” once upon a time and ever since then people have taken it really literally and used it both as a justification for writing about a really limited cross-section of people and as a critique for people that attempt to write outside of what they “know?” I could write a whole lot about that quote and how I agree and disagree with it but instead I’m just going to say right here – writers need to know more. This isn’t a litmus test for a being a writer but it’s part of the identity of being a writer. A writer that isn’t curious, that isn’t always expanding the world outside the window, is a shitty writer. If you’ve only met 7 people and they’re all named “Bob” and they are all look exactly the same and think and act exactly the same and eat the same thing for breakfast and wear the same pants, first of all, take photos because that’s really weird and I want to see it, and then go out and meet some other people. If you’re a white male almost 35 year-old guy named Erik that lives in Portland that doesn’t give you an excuse to only write about white male 35 year-old guys named Erik that live in Portland. Drive somewhere else, dude. I haven’t met or spent a lot of time with every single one of the 7 billion people that are currently living on the planet because that’s impossible and I certainly haven’t spent time with the untold billions that have lived and died before – no one has – but I still make an effort to know more, to meet more, to be open-minded and inquisitive. That’s part of what being a writer is and, from my lofty soapbox, I think it’s part of being a human too. Being a writer means connecting to and relating to every one of your characters if they are good guys, bad girls, or made of bees. That’s diversity. Mic dropped. Digression concluded.

I think you see the pattern here. Bonus: teddy bear.

I think you see the pattern here. Bonus: teddy bear.

Real quick while I have us all on the same page about our universal oneness and how empathy is the most critical thing ever and always as a writer and awesome person – let’s talk about why you, the 21st Century Writer, should take diversity into account when you pen your opus.

Reason Number One: if your content doesn’t connect or represent the world your readers inhabit, you create an off-ramp. This doesn’t mean that you pander to every demographic but you should be aware that if you have a big sprawling epic story with 500 characters and they are all macho monochromatic dudes that could alienate some readers and they might switch to something else. This is especially true in the current era of media consumption where consumers are more aware and savvy about that sort of thing than they used to be. For example, I watched the first 5-hour Hobbit movie with my wife after it came to home video and it was so overwhelmingly dude-y that we both commented on it and mocked it. Aside from Cate Blanchett in a tiny little cameo the movie was virtually ALL men. Even the extras were notably masculine. Certainly Tolkien purists would have been apoplectic if one or two of those dwarves were gender-swapped (oh! the dwarf-manity!) and Peter Jackson ultimately did create an all-new (and controversial) female character but it still seemed weird and off-rampy to me that one of the biggest movies of the year showed a world where 99% of the population is a man when more than 50% of the potential audience is women. More than that, all of those characters were progressively paler shades of white as if historical accuracy to made up races in a made up world demanded it (I’m also looking at you Game of Thrones). If the world you create feels inauthentic because it is at odds with the world your readers see out their windows, that creates a dissonance that could lose you readers.

Reason Number Two: making your work diverse makes it more interesting AND makes it stand out. Leading directly from the last point, I hated the Hobbit  movies. They were boring and redundant. I’d seen pretty much that same story before with different British accents and different set pieces. A lot of creators will moan that all stories have been told. Certainly if you understand that myths and stories follow certain patterns (read your Joseph Campbell), that’s true but it’s also absolute nonsense. Stories are different and new because the characters are different and new. Every story should always be new because every character should always be new. One way to really shake things up is to make your characters diverse, explore new ground. I say this as a white male creator and consumer – I’m a little tired of white men or at least the same cookie cutter white men that we so frequently see. I do thought experiments with myself when I’m creating a new character for a story. I ask myself what would change if the character was older or younger, a different gender, or a different background. I usually find that there’s something more interesting for me to explore (and presumably for readers to read about) in deviating from the easy, monochromatic mold.

Reason Number Three: seriously, you need all the readers you can get. I’m sure there are content creators out there that are lounging in their Scrooge McDuck-esque pools filled with gold and little green portraits of Ben Franklin waving their hands and saying “make them stop reading, I have too much of the money!” but I suspect that’s a pretty small demographic. Most of us want all the readers we can get not just so we can get paid but also because we legitimately want to share our work with the world. One way to get readers is to actually make an effort to give them what they want. Women buy and read a lot of books. I’m not going to do a statistic dump but I’m positive that if women don’t want to consume your work you are losing out on a massive market and that’s not good. The one thing I’ll give women and minority readers – they’re better at reading (or viewing) than white men. They can more easily connect with characters that don’t look exactly like them than white men can because they have to and they’ve learned how. If you look at popular culture you see a lot of narratives where the characters are just white men and you still see a lot of women and people of color enjoying those stories. Those are “universal” stories. But if you have main characters that are all women, or black, or gay those are “women’s stories” or “black stories” or “gay stories” and that creates some kind of hurdle for white men. As if those stories aren’t “universal” anymore because “universal” means white dudes. It’s silly and it really doesn’t reflect well on us, guys. All of that point is to say – if you make an effort to include them, you will grow your audience. Don’t take it for granted that women and people of color will always accept your monochromatic characters. Now that media is becoming more democratized and people have new choices, they don’t need to.

Reason Number Four: introducing diversity into your story is at the core of what being a writer is. Alright, I’m getting back on the soapbox. The first three reasons were almost cynical “business-y” reasons for incorporating diversity into your work. This one is from my heart and soul. Telling stories and connecting with people through those stories is my Purpose. I have to capitalize that word because, for me, my Purpose deserves at the very least the shift key. Everything I’ve ever seen and experienced has shown me a world that is sometimes fickle and painful and tragic. People you love hurt you, sometimes by accident, sometime on purpose. People you love leave you, sometimes because they want to and sometimes even when they don’t. People you love die. Life is messy and it hurts, sometimes more, sometimes less. But you get to love people. You get to know people. You get to connect and grow and learn from them and, if you’re lucky, you get to share what you’ve learned. I share what I’ve felt, what I’ve learned, with my stories. It’s not just jokes and punching and plots and dialog in my stories. It’s a line that I’m throwing out to world with every story, a line to hold onto, a line to climb, a line to pull, a line that brings me closer to you and you closer to me. The craft of writing is intensely and deeply personal and spiritual to me. I can’t heal the sick. I can’t end wars or make a Coca-Cola jingle that unites the world in a great big Don Draper mountaintop vision. I can tell stories that are funny and thrilling and sad and sweet and as honest as I can make them. So, of course I’m going to fill these stories with everyone and everything I’ve known, tall, short, gruff, chatty, male, female, gay, straight, trans, bi, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Taoist, Hindu, vegetarian, Republican, smart, strong, simple or complex. I don’t even need to think about it. Every character is human. Every character is awesome. Every character is different and I want to connect with all of them and all of the people that connect with those characters. I can’t think of anything so beautiful or meaningful. I can’t think of why anyone wouldn’t want that. Now, I have my biases and my experiences and my privilege and that comes out in my work. I am who I am and I don’t get to co-opt or token-ize anyone’s life or experience. I don’t want or intend to do that. I’m going to write things that will offend some, intentionally or unintentionally, and I’m going to always try to know more and be better. That’s what writing is to me. That’s what being a writer is. So, I guess if you’re a writer and actually need an argument or reasons why you should include diverse characters in your work, I don’t understand you and, from my smug dominant place as the writer of this blog, I think you’re doing it wrong.

I think that’s enough to chew on for now. I have a lot more to say. I want to write about “tokens” in content, about cultural appropriation, and about how to make your work diverse without pandering. And more. A lot more. Thanks for reading. Let’s do this again soon.

 

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