Writing the Other: a book recommendation for #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

I have a book to recommend for this month’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop. I’ve lost count of the number of times this month I’ve come across some variation of anxiousness over a writer who earnestly wants to do right by cultural material and characters that are not their own. I always recommend this book: Writing the Other by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl.

Seriously, you should all read this book. It came about out of an incident at the Clarion West workshop, when a student lamented that she felt there was no right way for her to write about non-White characters. Shawl and Ward have their own workshops tackling the problem, and this book grew out of these workshops.

It is full of practical advice and exercises. Here’s one of them to whet your appetite:

The book refers back to a collection of characteristic they call ROAARS (Race, Orientation, Ability, Age, Religion, and Sex). Another key concept is the Unmarked State, which denotes a state of possessing only those traits which are unremarkable. Choose a celebrity–any celebrity will do. Now as that celebrity, write a brief description of someone with radically different ROAARS. Take 4 minutes to write this description.

Some follow up questions:

  • Was one of the characters closer to the Unmarked State?
  • In which respects did they resemble/differ from the Unmarked State?
  • How did what you wrote from the pov of the celebrity differ from your own pov?
  • Did you find yourself using cliches or abandoning them?

If you gave the exercise a go, let me know in the comments. I’d also love to hear your views on writing those different from ourselves!

12 responses to “Writing the Other: a book recommendation for #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop”

  1. Interesting. I’ll have to take a look. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    1. Thanks for stopping by! <3

  2. I’ll definitely have to check this one out. I think it’s imperative that we be as diverse as possible in our writing, all while being careful on how we approach it. It may not simply suffice to include characters of different ROAARS – without meaning to, things can come across as offensive – which is why I believe many writers tend to shy away from it. So offering a book suggestion that can help writers overcome this is fantastic! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Absolutely. It’s a matter of craft and once we see it this way, a lot of the work is already done. We know how to research and hone our craft in other respects. We can apply the same skills to writing characters different from our lived experiences!

  3. Thanks for putting this on my radar. I’m very curious about their “Unmarked state” concept. Are those “unremarkable” traits ones shared by majority groups? Dominance functions by being invisible, so I’m wondering if, for instance, whiteness is an unmarked state because it’s often taken for granted and therefore unremarkable. Is that what the “unmarked state” refers to?

    1. It can be. The Unmarked State is any state where the traits of the person being described are literally unremarkable. Ex. “Someone lived in the apartment upstairs, but I never saw them” vs. “Mrs.Miggins and her guide dog Freddy lived upstairs; great neighbours!” Let’s say Mrs.Miggins is White. She’s still in the Marked State because she’s not just anyone– she’s the lady upstairs who has a guide dog. She is marked by her gender, sex, and ability in this case.

  4. As a trans writer, I feel this so much. I’ll have to take a look at Shawl & Ward’s stuff on the subject. I think people get so nervous about it that they end up just copping out. It’s a difficult issue to address, and I think you did a great way of framing it!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I fall somewhat on the point of saying certain stories should be told by people with lived experience while others are a matter of craft. I wouldn’t object to anyone writing a disabled Palestinian detective story, but writing about living in Gaza is, well, another story. 😉

      1. Definitely! Things that could deal with very real traumas (like, say, violence against trans women) are a hard line for me, and then the other things near that (like a protagonist figuring out they’re transgender) end up getting difficult to place. They always need research and consideration, though!

  5. Yaaasssss! There were a few terms that didn’t age well, but this book was written so long ago, and it’s still such an amazing resources. The “unmarked state” was such an aha moment for me once I read their definition. Thanks for the review!

  6. Looks like a useful resource, thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. Ah, this sounds really good. I’ll have to check this out. I have my worries about this issue, wanting to write characters who span humanity but don’t essentialize or tokenize. It’s easy to get stuck, to err, to doubt. I’ll add this to my list. Thank you!

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