Wading into the Cultural Appropriation Minefield

In case you haven’t been keeping up on news in the literary world, novelist Lionel Shriver was raked over the coals last week for defending cultural appropriation in her address to a Australian writers conference.

I can’t judge what she said. I wasn’t there and her speech hasn’t been posted by the conference. I only know what I read in the New York Times. I do think cultural appropriation should be taken seriously. Throughout history, minorities have been mostly powerless to stop the dominate culture from using their images and culture for art and entertainment. We have become more sensitive about the practice, but we still have a long way to go. While very few white people would show up at a party in black face, we still have a football team called the Redskins that fans fiercely defend in the name of “tradition.”

But those are relatively simple examples. When we look at how white writers use minority characters and cultures in their books, it becomes much more complicated.

I remember reading the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, to my daughter. I was curious to also read the original 1930 edition. The caretaker in that version is a drunken, comical African American. Readers back then were so familiar with the stereotype they probably didn’t think twice about it. The 1959 version changes the caretaker to a white man. There’s no more ethnic stereotype, but on the other hand, there’s no longer a minority character in the novel.

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Some cultural appropriation activists believe writers from the dominate culture should never portray people of color in their books. Their argument is that we can’t understand their experience and the nuances of their culture. We end up creating a dishonest or superficial portrait of them. There’s truth in this. We as writers need to thoroughly understand our characters’ worlds. Those worlds become more authentic when we “write what we know.” But it also means we turn our novels into a bland, safe paste that literally lacks color.

Even writing positive minority characters can be disrespectful. When I was a screenwriter, I don’t know how many scripts I read featuring a “Magical Negro” as Spike Lee dubbed the character — a wise black man or woman, sometimes with supernatural powers, who advises the main white character and helps him overcome his emotional obstacles. Morgan Freeman has practically made a career out of playing these characters!

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There are other issues to consider. Even someone from a minority culture doesn’t understand all aspects of it. Should there never be another Holocaust novel because how can any writer who hasn’t lived through that experience write about it authentically? Should an African American writer who grew up in an affluent community write about the inner city experience? It becomes very complicated!

So what do we as writers do? First of all, I think we need to look long and hard at all our characters and why they’re in our novel. Did we make a character black or Latino or Asian just to add diversity? That’s not enough. Characters need to be fully realized in the context of the story and their culture, whether they’re white, black, brown, or any color in-between.

I think it’s also important if you’re portraying aspects of a culture you’re not part of, whether it’s a Native American ritual or an inner city barrio, to talk to people who know it well. Have them read and react to your book. Listen to them.

We as writers need to push boundaries in our lives and writing. We need to write unafraid that we might provoke negative reactions. But we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to consider the impact of what we write, and how it affects readers of all backgrounds.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

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What Do I Write Next?

I rarely suffer from a lack of creative ideas. My problem is trying to decide what to write next. This usually begins when I’m in the midst of my current book or screenplay. What started out as an exciting premise or character starts to bog down in the details. Instead of writing, I find myself staring wistfully out the window, thinking of all my other story ideas. When they’re still an etherial part of my imagination, those ideas seem so perfect. They could practically write themselves. Perhaps I should write one of them next, I muse. Or perhaps I should even put aside my current manuscript. I could take a break, write something else. Maybe my current project will be easier when I return to it.

But then my rational mind takes over… usually. I know I’ll face just as many challenges with my new idea as soon as it starts to take shape. If I don’t finish my current book, I may never get back to it. I need to focus and recommit myself to my present course. I’ll let the new idea gestate in my mind as I fall asleep at night. If it’s good, it will take root.  It will get better. Or maybe not. Perhaps a week or month from now, I won’t be so enamored with my new literary paramour. Then I’ll move on to my next idea.

Best wishes,

Kelee

Transitions

I grew up in the midwest, however I lived in San Francisco for awhile. It’s a beautiful city and I enjoyed my time there. But one of my most vivid memories is when I returned to Chicago. I stepped off the train and was immediately overwhelmed by the rich smell decaying leaves, the cool, crisp air, and the cornucopia of fall colors. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I missed the change of seasons we experience here.

At the moment, it’s still hot and humid, but there’s already a subtle shift in the air as summer wanes and gives way to fall. The night air is a little cooler, and soon the first leaves will begin to change. This transition made me think about changes in my writing and reading life. It’s easy to fall into a pattern, writing in the same genre, following the same schedule, returning to the same characters and themes. Yes, it’s important to find our writing niche, but it’s also good to shake things up once in awhile. I did that when I switched from writing screenplays to writing romance novels. Now I feel it may soon be time to change course again, though perhaps not so radically.

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I think we need to shake things up as readers as well. If we tend to read romance, we need to pick up science fiction, a mystery, a literary novel, or perhaps a biography. It keeps our minds fresh and full of wonder, like the change of seasons.

What kind of transitions do you enjoy in your life? I’d love to hear.

Best wishes,

Kelee

How to Fake it Till You Make it as a Writer

I was listening to an interesting story on NPR not long ago. In it, a schlubby nobody wanted to find out what it feels like to be famous. He got some friends and strangers to pose as bodyguards, an assistant, and paparazzi. They walked through midtown Manhattan, treating him like the star he wasn’t, and guess what? People believed it. Gawkers gawked, girls swarmed. They imagined he was someone famous they had seen on TV or in a movie. For a short time, he faked his way into celebrity.

Most writers suffer from self-doubt. Voices scream in our heads, You’re a fake, a loser, a hack. You’ll never be a success, and if you are, the next book will bomb. I firmly believe that’s why Harper Lee never wrote a second book and why many writers turn to drink.

But we can change those negative messages and turn our writing, and our lives around.

I was recently struggling through a period when everything I wrote was terrible. The story, the characters, and the dialogue in my new book felt like bile I was throwing up on the page. I started avoiding writing, distracting myself with unpleasant household chores.

But after hearing the NPR story, I decided that if I couldn’t be a good writer, I could at least pretend to be one. Every morning I woke up, looked in the mirror, and repeated a phrase I had learned from author Julia Cameron: “You are a brilliant and prolific writer.”

It was so simple, but it worked. After giving myself a positive message, I more eager to sit down at my laptop, and the pages started to flow. I felt like Popeye after gulping down a can of spinach. The negative voices were subdued, and I became a “brilliant and prolific writer,” at least for the day.

Faking it till you make it can work in social situations too. Suppose you heard that an agent you thought would be perfect to represent you was going to be at a writing conference. You sign up. Now imagine two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by other wannabe authors. You tell yourself, Why would she be interested in me? My stuff isn’t good. I’ve already been rejected by 50 agents. Even if she agreed to read my manuscript, it would probably end up in the trash.

I’m sure you can imagine what you might do after all those negative messages. You’d probably end up at the cash bar, hiding your face in shame.

But what if, instead, you decided to fake it.

Scenario 2: You spot the agent across the room, surrounded by wannabe authors. But that’s not you. You’re already successful. You’ve had 10 books on the best seller list. You already have an agent, but perhaps would be in the market for a new one if she was right for you.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to lie to the agent. You’d be found out pretty quickly. I’m telling you to lie to yourself. Play the role of the successful author. Approach the agent with confidence. Introduce yourself and make firm eye contact. Invite her to read your latest manuscript. You might just end up at the cash bar sharing a drink with her.

I know this sounds fake. It is. You’re playing a part for yourself. Remember the guy who pretended to be a celebrity? He never told anyone he was famous. He just played the part and they came to their own conclusions.

Many years ago, I read about another way to fake it till you make. I don’t recall the title of the self-help book, but its premise was, Act like it was impossible to fail.

We all know failure is a fact of life for writers. I have the rejection letters to prove it. Again, this isn’t about telling yourself that you can’t fail. You’ll know you’re lying. It means to act like you can’t fail. What would you do if you acted like the novel you were planning couldn’t fail? What if you acted like it was destined to be a Harry Potter-like hit and buy you a French chateau? Would you put it off, or would  you get down to some serious writing?

Try this for a day, a week, a month. Try it the next time you write a query letter or go to a conference. Try it the next time you meet a hot guy at a party.

“What do you do?” he asks.

“I’m a writer,” you reply without apology or hesitation.

Best wishes,

Kelee

 

Taking a Vacation from Writing

It’s summer, in case you haven’t noticed. Time changes in many ways. The days get longer. Sometimes they’re lazy, sometimes harried, but they have a very different feel than the rest of the year. For families, the regularity of the school year is on hold. Instead, there are camps, playdates, trips to the beach, and too much time watching Netflix. (At least for my kids.)

It’s difficult for me to make the transition to summer. I feel guilty that I’m not writing more. I’ll allocate a few hours to write, but I’ve forgotten I have to take a kid to an appointment, or I have to run a forgotten lunch over to camp. The day gets away. I’ve lost my rhythm. My writing suffers.

Then it’s time to head out of town for an extended family trip. I leave writing completely behind. After a day or two, I don’t miss it. Instead, I focus on scenery and family time. I allow my brain to recharge. The chapter I’ve been struggling with will still be there when I return, but perhaps I’ll have a new perspective on it. I keep faith with the idea of process, not results. Taking time off is part of the process. I’m still a writer even if I don’t churn out several thousand words per day. I give myself permission to take a break, to recharge, to live life outside the page.

Happy summer, everyone. I’ll see you when I get back!

Kelee

The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Killing Your Babies

I loved the opening scene of the new romance novel I’m working on, Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It was funny, with great dialogue, intriguing characters, and page-turning thrills. Best of all, I’d given it what I thought was an interesting twist. We first see our heroine, Julina Trevers, through the eyes of her caddish ex-boyfriend. I was so proud of myself.

There was just one problem.

My first-round readers hated the scene.

If this was a Kindle sample, one wrote, I would never download itI was confused, wrote another. Who’s the protagonist? They went on: Too long. The boyfriend never reappears. Why focus so much on a dislikable character?

I wanted to rail, to tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about. They couldn’t see clever writing if it hit them over the head. But these were all experienced writers and readers, and it wasn’t just two or three of them who didn’t like the scene, as is usually the case. They all hated it equally.

I had invested so much time and energy into this opening. I couldn’t bare to throw it out. Instead, I put aside the manuscript and spent several weeks working on my other book-in-progress. Now I’ve returned to it, and it’s still painful to change, but I’m doing it.

Killing your babies (or darlings for the more sensitive among you) is such an apt metaphor for what a writer has to go through. We’ve birthed these characters, scenes, plot lines, and sometimes, whole books. It’s agony to have to take a butcher knife to them, to slash them apart and resemble them. Sometimes they end up in the compost heap like yesterday’s dinner.

But as writers, we have to remember, compost isn’t trash. It breaks down and becomes something lovely and new that will eventually nourish our creative garden. Those lines of dialogue or the great character we created may someday end up in another book, right where they belonged all the time.

Writers, feel the pain and agony of killing your babies, but remember, they will live again.

Happy writing,

Kelee