Why Are You Telling This Story?

April 28, 2022 § 10 Comments

On the intersections of art, justice, and personal responsibility

By Jeannine Ouellette

Pamela Paul’s recent New York Times column, “The Limits of Lived Experience,” argues that writing about people whose lives differ from ours involves empathy and imagination, and is therefore good, while “policing” what others should or shouldn’t write is bad. Paul writes,

What troubles me most about the increasingly dogmatic emphasis on ‘lived experience’ is that it feels like yet another way of policing and limiting culture. Most creative people are open-minded, empathetic, and imaginative; they build worlds that let us cross borders. Recent efforts to contain and limit expression is a worrying one, and an issue I expect to return to in columns to come.

I find Paul’s take reductionist and full of red herrings, including the alarmist subject line with which her column swam into my inbox: “Who gets to tell stories?” This question and the column itself sidestep the issue’s central dilemma, which is simply that we assume responsibilities when we choose to write about others whose lives differ from ours, especially if they have less power than we do. Accepting these responsibilities means neither succumbing to dogma nor being censored, as Paul asserts. It means recognizing and engaging with questions of ethics, justice, and creative accountability. I emphasize questions, because this complex, multifaceted topic defies easy answers. No single formula can address every possibility across genre, from whether or how to write a fictional character who is gay when I am straight, to whether and when to step back entirely from a subject or character. 

What we’re really talking about is the profound and indelible link between the workings of individual human imagination and the collective human experience. The least we can do is consider our work in this context. I often start by asking myself why I am writing a particular story at a particular time. For example, I teach creative writing in prisons. Not surprisingly, this work is powerful and has changed me. Yet, I haven’t written about it. To do so feels exploitative considering the vulnerability of my students and the significant difference between my privilege and power, and theirs. It could be read as suggesting a “good-doer-ism” with which I do not identify or wish to advance in my creative work. Yet, if I had a very compelling reason to write about my work in prisons, one that in no way risked using my students as “material,” perhaps I would. So far, that has not been the case. 

Overall, as both writer and teacher, I find the question “why am I (or you) writing this story?”  invaluable because it raises auxiliary questions about a story’s topic and characters in relation to a writer situated within a particular time and place. A recent example: after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Smith’s hair at the Oscars, many Black women in my online writing groups expressed discomfort with white women publishing essays on the matter, pointing to racially charged contextual issues best understood and addressed by Black writers (media stereotypes of “the violent Black male,” racist laws regarding Black women’s hair, etc.).

Rather than thoughtfully consider such complexities, Paul defends the status quo, wherein those with the most power tell the most stories and gain the most from telling, regardless of who gets silenced and sidelined in the process. In Paul’s view, this is justified: “If we all wrote only from our personal experience, our films, performances, and literature would be reduced to memoir and transcription. What an impoverished culture that would be.”

This is not only hyperbolic, it is uncurious about the evolving ethics of storytelling in a world where we are, thankfully, growing slightly more aware of and hopefully more committed to changing how structures of oppression and ethics of representation interact with art. Such questions arose during my 2015-2017 MFA experience, yes, but I’ve felt them more viscerally since the whole world watched my city burn through June of 2020 after the violent police murder of George Floyd. The link between my values and my voice strengthened, and my understanding of my ethical obligations to speak to the issue of power and representation in creative writing intensified.

Art is bigger than self-expression. It’s bigger than the “imagination and empathy” Paul extols, as crucial as those elements are to creativity. Art operates as a change agent, fueling social evolution as it simultaneously responds to and pushes culture forward through actively engaging with the most important questions of its time.

What are those questions now? Other than those about our burning planet, almost all of our crucial discourse surrounds power structures, especially white supremacy and patriarchy as fueled by capitalism. Paul argues, “privileging only those voices with a stake in a story carries its own risks,” and points out that “authenticity of voice … doesn’t guarantee quality of prose, storytelling, pacing, dialogue, or other literary merits.” In so doing, she sounds distressingly similar to opponents of other social and racial justice efforts such as affirmative action, who’ve argued that prioritizing access for marginalized groups could result in unqualified hires. 

This and other binaries in Paul’s column frustrate me. Instead of encouraging those who wish to write outside their own experience to consider their decisions with care and attention to the ethics of representation, seeking out resources as needed to do so responsibly and authentically (I’ve included some at the end of this essay), Paul reduces the conversation to a threat:

Taken to its logical conclusion, the belief that ‘lived experience’ trumps all other considerations would lead to a world in which we would create stories only about people like ourselves, in stories to be illustrated by people who looked like ourselves, to be reviewed and read only by people who resembled ourselves.

Hmm. According to a 2020 analysis, “Just How White is the Book Industry,” also published by The New York Times, “Author diversity at major publishing houses has increased in recent years, but white writers still dominate. Non-Hispanic white people account for 60 percent of the U.S. population; in 2018, they wrote 89 percent of the books in our sample.”

This conversation should not be about some exaggerated risk of “censoring” those writers most likely to be published in the first place. Rather, it should be about how we can all make work that is imaginative, empathetic, and authentic without contributing to power structures or imbalances that continue to harm and destroy the lives of others. Ultimately, we will all bear the consequences for our art and its impacts, intended and unintended, in the wider world we share.

Resources for writers:

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

Writing the Other

Representation Matters: A Literary Call to Arms

When it Comes to Writing the Other, What Questions Are You Not Asking?

Jeannine Ouellette’s memoir, The Part That Burns, was a 2021 Kirkus Best 100 Indie Book and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, with starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared widely, including in Narrative, North American Review, Masters Review, Penn Review, Calyx, and more. She teaches through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Catapult, the University of Minnesota, and Elephant Rock, a writing program she founded in 2012. She is working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter.

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§ 10 Responses to Why Are You Telling This Story?

  • Morgan Baker says:

    Thoughtful and thought provoking- will share with my workshops. Thank you.

  • […] Why Are You Telling This Story? […]

  • Andrea Firth says:

    Erudite. Insightful. Useful. Thank you.

  • candidkay says:

    I tend to think there are no absolute answers. Can a man write as a woman and do it well? Rarely, but I’ve seen it happen. Can someone write about a culture they don’t come from and do its nuances justice? I’ve seen that happen also but the stars must align:).

    • geodutton says:

      Now that re-gendering oneself is mainstreaming, capturing queer perspectives has gotten more common and accepted, blurring this issue even more. Writers who aren’t queer write about people (real or fictional) who are or have so become. I happen to have written a novel, accepted for publication, in which the main protagonist is a straight woman her friend and lover is a bi male. I felt not being either wasn’t a big handicap, but it did make me more sensitive to their issues, anxieties, and ways of behaving. That neither is American and both live in a country I’ve never visited made my job even harder, but there have been no complaints about inauthenticity from readers so far.

  • We all know that artists, certainly in their finest hours, do what they do by means of a gift for relaxing ego boundaries and accessing a combination of mind and skill that is among the most rewarding experiences life offers, often preferred to sex and wealth.

    The best composers of all kinds of art, music, literature, choreography… make manifest what flows from them when they leave themselves behind and become a channel, a vessel. They don’t have to know how or why, and neither do we. In such states, a person actually does draw from “multitudes”–a great and mysterious gift.

    When something true is said in a new way, let’s be thrilled with whoever says it. It’s the qualities of their access to something larger than themselves, and their skill in shaping that, not the person in their individual life circumstances! The mind is huge.

    Cultivating, encouraging, and marketing the very best creative works from all kinds of people, writing in the voice of any person, animal, insect, plant, or imaginary being that came natural for them to write, is what editors can do, attuned to the authentic gift.

    Artists, please, as always, expand, don’t contract. Don’t look at your hands on the keyboard or holding the brush and ask do I have the right? You do.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Hi Jeannine, Great to read your words here. This is such a complex subject, and I appreciate all you have written including the perspective that those who write have power, and as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn said, “The one true use of power is to ease one’s own suffering and the suffering of others.”
    I also want to offer this West African proverb that comes to mind: “Until the Lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.”

  • Karen says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful analysis –

  • Laura Rink says:

    Another good resource: Paisley Rekdal’s book Appropriate: A Provocation

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