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Writing What You Don't Know

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Writing What You Don't Know

Recently in the L.A. times (January 15th, 2006) the author Thomas Gibbons wrote of his struggles and conflicts, being a white playwright who has often written black characters. An old, old controversy: Can Whites Write About Blacks?

The real question lurking beneath all of this is: can one person ever write about another? Gay and Straight? Conservative and Liberal? Southerner and Northerner? Ultimately, it becomes ridiculous. Taken far enough, we can only conclude that no human being can write about anyone but himself. Reductio ad absurdum.

We have an obligation to write about the world we see, about people other than ourselves, and about the deepest reaches of the human heart. How do we do this? I suggest we begin by extending to others the same basic motivations and needs that you yourself feel, your own humanity, your own fears and loves, and you will be right more often than wrong. This can be dangerous: note the critical drubbing Steven Spielberg received for daring to suggest that terrorists had feelings and motivations in "Munich"!

To begin, let's first paraphrase Rene Descarte: to be alive, one must first exist. Such existence will adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them now or will come to understand them in the future.

Living things will have strategies (conscious or unconscious) for receiving energy from their environment. If these are complex strategies, they will have ways of passing them on to their offspring, which implies language or some form of communication.

Begin with the most basic drives. Assume equal basic desires for survival, reproduction, comfort, and power, and you will probably be safe. Violate these CONSCIOUSLY, and you may create a classic. Do it unconsciously, and you create an unbelievable piece of pulp. The creature in "Alien" whose motivations seem initially impenetrable, becomes less opaque once we understand its lifecycle. That very believability increases its mystery and terror. We see a lethal animal, rather than a man in a rubber suit. And that makes all the difference.


Can men write about women? Can women write about men? Well, of course people have been doing both for centuries, but the question remains.

I think that men and women are about 99% the same. The basic biological difference is that women are the ones who get pregnant. This leads to a certain degree of specialization: more estrogen on one hand, more testosterone on the other. So males are larger, stronger, possessed of more burst power and aggressiveness, necessary for defending the home. Women are longer-lived, and have better tolerance for certain long-term endurance and pain activities, related to their need to survive childbirth.

This specialization has been exaggerated by industrialized societies, and those strictures only really began to break down with the development of effective birth control.

What can be said with relative confidence about both genders?
1)both seek control over their environment.
1) Both seek to "norm" their own behavior. "Why won't men commit?" "Why are women so clingy?" Each side stumping for the other to behave the way THEY do, given their reproductive roles in a dyadic biological unit. Huge amounts of male and female behavior relate directly to this split.
2) Both sides tend to harbor beliefs that they are superior. It is SO childishly easy to lead a group of men or women into comments about the advantages they have over the other side, and how they can do (almost) anything the others can do"and then some
3) Both sides want to live, to reduce pain in their lives, to have love and success. They may prioritize things like freedom and security a bit differently, but they are two halves of the same human experience.

If you'd been raised in Mexico City, would you speak Spanish? All boys and girls have aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and what not. We are absolutely surrounded by each other. If you don't understand the opposite sex, you don't understand yourself.


When I wrote "Lion's Blood," my story of Africans colonizing America, I tasked myself to give the Irish slaves more humanity, more "inwardness" than I had ever seen a white author give black characters. I wanted them to live and breathe, have hopes and dreams and sexuality and intelligence. This was the great sin of "Gone With The Wind"""not that it depicted a slave society, but that it denied the slaves any hopes and dreams of their own. Not for a moment could you assume anything other than that those slaves loved being slaves, that they perceived this as being their natural place in the universe, and that all was right with the world""until those damned Northerners upset the apple cart. This movie is, in adjusted dollars, the most successful film ever made, or is ever likely to be made. It is the single dominating cinematic mythology of our culture, and the damage it has wrought has been incalculable.

How to avoid this? First, start by assuming that members of the "other" group have the same hopes and dreams and needs that you have. That, as Sting once said about the Soviets, they "love their children, too." Give them the same soul, the same intellect. THEN look at the differences in their behaviors, and ask yourself what circumstances would induce YOU to behave in that way. Yes, you will occasionally be wrong. Sometimes there really aren't equivalences. But more often than not, there are.

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Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, personal performance coach, and martial artist. He has lectured on creativity and human consciousness at UCLA, Mensa, and the Smithsonian Institute. Steve created the Lifewriting system of (more...)

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