Skip Navigation

Top Menu

Home Archives About


Finding Joy in Imperfection and Obscurity December 31, 2020

For Christmas this year, my husband gave me two Audio-Technica microphones with boom stands and a MOTU M2 interface for recording music. He spent a lot of time researching the equipment and a lot of money buying it, so I could record my flute and piano arrangements without sounding like I borrowed an omnidirectional conference call microphone from work and faked the "stereo" sound by messing with left and right balances.

Photo of piano recording setup with boom mics

I should have been ecstatic. I should have been playing with the equipment all day and gleefully reveling in the quality of the sound.

Instead, my reaction to this very nice and expensive gift was anxiety. I was afraid to touch it. I didn't want to hear what my piano or flute playing sounded like on a studio-quality track.

Why? For the same reason I rarely use the Wacom drawing tablet I begged my husband for two years ago, used the nice set of Prismacolor pencils he gave me for a previous Christmas only once, and never opened the calligraphy brushes I ordered specifically for myself. And the same reason I seize up in terror just thinking about writing fiction these days, and this entire calendar year I wrote exactly one chapter of my novel in progress.

Because the things I create will never be "good enough."

Throughout my childhood, my parents paid music teachers thousands of dollars to point out everything I did wrong. I practiced both flute and piano for hours every day to get better, but always a teacher or judge noticed something I was still doing wrong. I should have taken a breath here, not there. I stumbled on that arpeggio and cracked on that third-octave E. I need to spend more time on the exercises, pay more attention to the tuner and the metronome, try harder and have more discipline.

Most of these teachers were just doing their jobs to turn me into a decent musician. But some thought tearing children down was clever and fun. One man who fancied himself heaven's musical gift to Southern California impatiently waited for me to finish playing a flute piece so he could crow with satisfaction, "Mozart would hate the way you played that!" One unhappy woman who judged the city's youth piano competition every year wrote her evaluations in the cruelest language she could muster. A child didn't simply play a piece more slowly than she thought it should be played—they played it sooo slowly it was legally torture, and she couldn't wait for the pain to end.

Once when I didn't win first place in a regional flute competition, my teacher said, "It's good for you to lose sometimes." I was very confused, because in my head I lost every day. By high school nobody had to tell me everything I did wrong, because I could see and hear every imperfection most acutely. Every practice session, lesson, and public performance was a battle against my lack of skill, and I always lost.

Wise people say talent has little to do with whether a person succeeds in an artistic career. The writers who publish bestsellers, and the performers who "make it," are just the ones who didn't give up. This is an accurate statement, but it's framed in a way sounds like the ones who gave up lacked tenacity. They couldn't handle rejection, they didn't believe in themselves, and they didn't have the passion to keep trying.

But most have plenty of passion, or they wouldn't have tried to become artists in the first place. They gave up because the process of becoming "good enough" in the eyes of others sucks the joy out of any craft.

In my early twenties, I loved nothing more than writing. I resented every hour I had to spend doing something else. After ten years of receiving rejection letters detailing all the reasons my novels aren't good enough to publish, writing is now like playing music. I can't draft a page without seeing everything literary agents would call a fatal flaw. I want to finish my manuscript, but every time I even think about sitting down to work on it, my body rebels and runs to the television to play Animal Crossing instead.

The people who stop doing something that doesn't make them happy anymore are probably smarter and healthier than the ones who pressure themselves to keep going. In movies and biographies, we build this romantic myth of the artist starving and self-destructing through years of dedication until their hard work pays off. We go so far as to claim that self-inflicted misery proves an artist has talent and drive. How messed up is that?

Two weeks ago, pop violinist Lindsey Stirling posted a video of herself playing a piece while "hair hanging," which is as horrific an act as it sounds. Suspended by nothing but a harness attached to her hair, she swung around the stage in obvious pain while playing an electric violin and doing elegant dance moves. In a promotional vlog leading up to the publication, Lindsey faces the camera and sobs that hair hanging hurts so bad. She's so sore and miserable, she can't get out of bed in the morning. She says being lifted into the air feels like her scalp is going to rip off, and she has to convince herself every single time that she's strong enough to do it. And this footage of her suffering in tears is spliced together with an uplifting soundtrack as if it's a motivational training montage.

Screenshot from Lindsey Stirling's hair hanging vlog, captioned 'Is it worth the pain?'
The answer is no, Lindsey. It's not.

A snippet of the equally horrific comments from fans:

Your determination and strength is beyond belief. I cried with you watching this vlog of your pain and anxiety, your such an inspiration and talent.
Absolutely beautiful. The detication to being an amazing artist and achieving something so incredible. Don't tell her to the incredible video she created. Artists like her deserve the highest of respect and love
All the people in the comments asking why she'd put herself through needless pain have failed to understand that it's the needlessness that makes it important. Anyone can endure torture and pain if they have to. Only a few have the existential courage to act against all genetic programming...and become human.

Anyone who wants to watch artists literally torture themselves needs to read Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" and reflect on their definition of beauty (and humanity, apparently). Lindsey could have achieved the same aesthetic in her music video by wearing a safe and supportive harness designed for aerial dance, so beauty wasn't the point. The point was to suffer. Hair hanging is a circus stunt in the same category as Houdini-style escape acts and tightrope-walking without a safety net—spectacles that appeal to audiences who are enthralled when performers put their health and safety at risk.

Becoming a popular artist today is all about the spectacle. Gotta get those YouTube views, Instagram follows, and Twitter retweets. Gotta ratchet up those metrics and get people talking. Gotta make daily content, bigger content, more shocking and sexy and bingeable content. Please like and subscribe, please buy my merch, please please please don't click away to something else.

To state the obvious, this kind of thinking about the arts is caused by money. Modern society tells us there's no point in doing anything unless you can make money, and in the arts you can make money only if you "stand out." Millions of people are good musicians, but only a handful in every city can do it professionally. Thousands of writers pen good novels, but only a handful in the whole country can support a household with royalties alone. You've "made it" in the publishing industry when an editor offers you $5,000 before taxes and commissions, paid out in little checks over four years.

People on Twitter often proclaim in righteous anger, "Stop saying artists should create for personal fulfillment instead of money. It normalizes not paying artists for their work." In fact, not paying artists for their work has been the norm since the invention of currency. Throughout history, in cultures worldwide, the arts of music and theater, poetry, acrobatics, and comedy were the work of roaming beggars, prostitutes, and court servants. Art isn't a commodity necessary for survival or convenience, so only the wealthy were able and willing to pay for it, and there were very few wealthy people.

In the twentieth century, we collectively grew wealthier and managed to build an entertainment industry that does make money for a few lucky stars, but still little or none for the other 99.999% of artists. In the twenty-first century, that industry will not suddenly become magnanimous and pay living wages to novelists who aren't James Patterson and singers who aren't Taylor Swift.

The arts enrich our lives, but they've never enriched our wallets, and they never will. So yes, we must indeed write for personal fulfillment instead of money, or the foolish pursuit of commercial success will poison our art and our sanity.

In my head, and probably the heads of many others, two kinds of "not good enough" get tangled together. The healthy "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't yet producing the effect I want to create." Seeing where you have room for growth and learning how to improve is a good thing.

The poisonous "not good enough" means, "This story/song/drawing isn't marketable. The industry will say it's too amateurish, too boring, too common. Nobody will buy it. People on the Internet will say I suck." Fretting over money and popularity is not a good thing at all. That's how talented musicians end up swinging around a stage by their hair for the shock factor. Or flashing their breasts in YouTube thumbnails for the clicks and follows.

Cosplaying Pianist YouTuber Gains 1.5 Million Followers
There's sex positivity, and then there's debasing yourself to pander to the type of men who own anime-girl mouse pads with silicone gel boobs for wrist support. (Source)

Untangling the two types of "not good enough" is tricky, because we create for an audience. You might say, "Just forget about what anyone else thinks and write for yourself," but the point of all art is to create an experience for others that communicates your vision and ideas. How can I tell if a piece truly needs work because the audience isn't feeling what I want them to feel, or if the piece is acceptable and I need to ignore the imaginary voices telling me I suck? How can I flush out the poison of this analytics-driven world and recapture the joy of creation?

I'd like to end this blog post with an answer, but I don't have one yet. At least I managed to fire up my new toys and record a song. It's highly imperfect, and doubtless some unhappy music teacher somewhere would tear it to shreds. But I have a temporary antidote: I turned off the comments and display of likes/dislikes.

How to Write Nontoxic Conflict in Romance December 23, 2020

At the time I'm drafting this blog post, there are ten days left in 2020. Though these past few years have highlighted some of the worst in humanity, we've also seen encouraging growth. Previously untouchable men who abused their power over young girls, like Hollywood producers and Olympic team doctors, are finally facing the consequences. Addressing systemic racism in law enforcement is a long overdue national effort. After decades of mostly white, exclusively straight protagonists in books and movies, we can now see African kings as inspiring superheroes, lesbian relationships in heartwarming Christmas movies, and modern Muslim heroines lighting up the pages of bestselling romcoms.

But we still think rape is exciting.

The much anticipated Netflix show Bridgerton, premiering December 25, is based on a series of novels Julia Quinn wrote about twenty years ago. In the first installment, The Duke and I, the heroine Daphne wants children, but her husband Simon doesn't. After a big fight over the issue, Simon gets drunk and falls asleep. Daphne rapes him. He wakes up and begs her to stop, but she forces him to ejaculate inside her.

Romance fans in 2020 assumed the writers of the show would take this controversial scene out. But according to critics who previewed it, like Aja Romano at Vox, the "deeply disturbing" rape scene is still there. For added fun, the character of Simon is played by a Black actor and Daphne by a white one.

An American production team of dozens couldn't possibly have filmed a scene of a white woman forcing herself on a Black man without one person raising a hand to say, "Maybe this isn't a great idea." The Bridgerton show-runners must have discussed how upset people would be. Yet they decided to go ahead and keep it in.

Why? I'd guess for the same reasons I still see marital rape portrayed as darkly erotic in books published this year:

  • Because it's "realistic for the time period."
  • Because it's "necessary to the plot."
  • Because the writers think there's no other way to generate dramatic conflict.

First, as I've said many times before, anything created in 2020 is for an audience living in 2020. It doesn't matter what was acceptable or commonly overlooked in 1820. This is a sumptuous costume drama premiering on Christmas Day, not a history lesson. The message will be that marital rape is fine and dandy today.

Second, the only time a problematic element is unavoidable is when the story is about that element. Including racist epithets in a novel, for example, would be necessary only in a story about the harmful effects of racism. Characters don't need to toss slurs around just to show how gritty or flawed they are. You can show flaws in many different ways that don't offend and personally attack a significant portion of readers.

Employing rape as a plot device to generate conflict is also firmly in the category of Gratuitous and Unnecessary. If you need two characters to fight and separate, there are always many potential triggers to choose from. In the case of Bridgerton, the main couple already had a big conflict straining their marriage from day one: the issue of having kids. Expanding on that, the rape scene could be easily omitted without affecting the plot at all.

The original plot: Daphne wants babies and Simon doesn't. Daphne rapes Simon. Simon leaves Daphne. A month later Daphne finds out she's pregnant. The couple reconciles.

A rape-free plot: Daphne wants babies and Simon doesn't. Daphne attempts to seduce Simon into agreeing to make babies. Simon feels used and unloved, gets angry, and leaves Daphne. A month later Daphne finds out she's pregnant anyway, because they had a lot of sex before that night and "pulling out" is a highly unreliable method of birth control. Simon is upset but knows he has to take responsibility. The couple reconciles.

Avoiding problematic content is quite easy, because humans are messy and fragile. We get hurt and angry over many things. But from the sheer number of books and shows that still use rape as a plot device, or rely on abusive behavior and silly miscommunications to drive lovers apart, it seems many writers don't know where to find sources of conflict that aren't toxic.

Find realistic conflicts in real life.

The best place to find ideas for conflict is the same place you can find inspiration for anything else in fiction: your own experiences in real life.

Think about what ruffles your own feathers, and what has led to distressing arguments with loved ones in the past. Here are some things real couples with healthy relationships fight about all the time:

  • Money. One person wants to spend it on things, but the other wants to save it or spend it on different things.
  • Marriage. To one person it's important, but to the other it's a stupid piece of paper or a terrifying commitment.
  • How to spend free time. One person likes hanging out with friends the other doesn't click with. Or one enjoys a hobby that bores the other.
  • Big life changes. One wants to move to another city while the other wants to stay put. Or one wants to start a new career, but the other is afraid of losing income and benefits.

Common conflicts might not seem melodramatic enough for a romance. They're not shocking like rape scenes. They're not soul-crushing like outrageous misunderstandings, sudden betrayals, or secrets with tragic consequences. But you don't need Big Trauma for Big Drama.

Another romance coming out on Christmas this year is Sylvie's Love. I added it to my Amazon watchlist immediately after seeing this trailer.

Now tell me your heart didn't break for those two when he asked her to come to Paris, and she answered softly, "I'm afraid I can't." No epic meltdowns. No snarling insults or resounding slaps across the face. Neither is withholding critical information from the other for illogical reasons. He simply has his own dreams, and she has hers, and the two aren't compatible.

From decades of toxic romances, people have learned that characters have "chemistry" when they're at each other's throats. When a gangster threatens a woman's life, it's "sizzling sexual tension." When two attractive people cruelly belittle each other, that's "witty banter." The most popular romance novels have titles like The Hating Game. The snippets authors share online to tantalize new readers portray knife-wielding assassins growling seductive lines like, "I don't know if I want to kiss you or kill you."

Verbal abuse somehow became the standard of "chemistry" in fiction, and that's both worrisome and ineffective. What I see in the trailer for Sylvie's Love is genuine chemistry: two people who are happiest in each other's company. Since narrative tension comes from the distance between a character's current state and perfect peace & happiness, a quiet breakup between two nice people in love can be as earth-shattering as an epic revelation of secrets and treachery.

In crafting conflicts for romance that touch audiences, the key is that the issues feel real and deeply important to the characters. You don't need violent high-stakes plots full of bomb threats by criminal masterminds and car chases with terrorists, like in thrillers. Or operatic drama full of royal scandals, assassination plots and incest, like in epic fantasy. Fighting over hobbies is honestly enough.

Let's illustrate some different types of conflicts with a theoretical contemporary romance between Xander, a hot paramedic, and Yolanda, a hot pastry chef juggling her exhausting job at a grocery-store bakery with her studies for an online MBA.

Variation 1: The Toxic New Adult Couple

Xander is a macho alpha with a tragic loss in his past whose defensive arrogance intrigues Yolanda. Yolanda is a damaged victim of abuse, but Xander teaches her sex can be pleasurable. After a whirlwind romance that consists mostly of brooding, alcohol, and copulating against walls, one accuses the other of cheating. They scream the most hurtful things they can think of, then have more explosive sex. They break up, miss each other terribly, and get back together.

This is a retrograde pattern I don't see in print anymore, thankfully. But it's enormously popular in self-published romances and erotica online, because that's what young writers learned is a riveting story during the heyday of Fifty Shades of Grey and Beautiful Disaster. Let's stop it, please. In 2020 arrogant jerks aren't a romantic ideal, and the traumatized victim/virgin who blooms and shivers under the jerk's masterful fingers is just insulting.

Variation 2: The Uncommunicative Couple

Yolanda is afraid of committing to a serious relationship because three years ago she had a miscarriage, and her fiance left her when she needed him most. Instead of talking to Xander about it, she pushes him away whenever she feels like she's falling for him.

For his part, Xander resents Yolanda's hot/cold behavior and cagey excuses for fleeing after sex: she has to be at the bakery early in the morning, she has assignments due for her classes, and so on. But he doesn't want to seem selfish or unsupportive, so he doesn't say anything either.

The resentments build up until a big climax of tears and recriminations. They break up, miss each other terribly, and get back together.

This annoying pattern is very common in print and everywhere else. Characters go out of their way to avoid addressing issues that could be easily resolved in one conversation, because then how would you draw out the conflict and keep the lovers apart until the end?

In real life, people regularly address issues head on and still can't resolve them. If talking about a problem fixes it instantly, it wasn't a real problem to begin with. For a couple that truly belongs together, a breakup-worthy problem is when one person wants one thing, and the other person wants a different thing, and the two things can't coexist. We have so many of those situations to choose from, there's no need to keep the source of conflict a closely guarded secret for two thirds of the story.

Variation 3: The Idiot Ball Couple

Xander and Yolanda develop a solid relationship with no abuse, no artificial secrets, and no miscommunications about what each person wants and expects.

Then when Xander's brother teases him about Yolanda, Xander suddenly regresses to adolescence. He stupidly says Yolanda is just a fling, and he wouldn't seriously date a woman like her. Yolanda overhears and similarly undergoes a radical change in personality out of nowhere. She furiously retorts that's a relief, because she'd never fall for a man like him either. She storms out. They don't talk for a whole month while they miss each other terribly.

Then friends conspire to invite them to the same bar at the same time, and they suddenly grow up again and confess their love.

This isn't just a flimsy conflict, it's a nonexistent one that leaves audiences rolling eyes and scratching heads. Do otherwise mature adults sometimes act like thirteen-year-olds in real life? Yes, but they regret it instantly and hug it out within one hour, not a month of dragged-out drama.

If characters have to pass the Idiot Ball to each other to justify the end-of-act-two breakup, the story needs fundamental work. A real conflict needs to be introduced early and explored in multiple ways before the breakup point.

Variation N: The Otherwise Healthy Couple with Insurmountable Issues

Xander falls hard for Yolanda and knows she's "the one." He brings up marriage and how much he's always wanted to be a dad. He tells Yolanda he wants to have kids soon because his parents are older, and he wants his children to have memories of their Grandma and Grandpa.

Yolanda also falls hard for Xander, but her priority right now is finishing her degree and opening her own bakery. She tells him she can't even think about getting married for another five years, because establishing a small business is a huge financial risk and an all-in commitment. She'll be working every waking moment from 3 am to 8 pm, and she won't have the time or headspace to be a bride and mom too.

When Xander's mother has a health scare, he feels he can't wait five or more years to start a family, but he also doesn't want to stand in the way of Yolanda's dreams. Yolanda feels guilty for prioritizing her career over Xander, but she's afraid if she married him now, she'd have regrets and always wonder "what if?" They both make the difficult decision to part ways.

Now the problem with an actual problem like this is, how do you resolve it? If people are simply holding the Idiot Ball, that's easy. If they were dodging a conversation for 150 pages and the issue evaporates after a good cry, that's super easy.

Finding a solution to a real problem is hard. One or both people are going to have to give something up. Some possibilities:

  1. After a conversation with his mother, Xander reevaluates how important it is to find a new partner who wants to have kids right away vs. waiting a bit to spend the rest of his life with the woman he already loves. He decides to mentor boys in the community for now and support Yolanda while she starts her bakery, because she's worth it.
  2. Yolanda thinks hard about why she's so determined to start her own business. She discovers, as hinted earlier through her frustration with her MBA studies, that she doesn't want to be an entrepreneur. The stress of making money is destroying her love of making beautiful cakes. She leaves her unsatisfying job at the grocery store to work for an established baker she admires, and she shows up on Xander's doorstep with cupcakes in his favorite flavor.
  3. Both of the above.

You don't need Big Drama for interest.

I know some people will read the above synopsis and say, "That sounds boring." Stories about healthy relationships are not as inherently exciting as stories about toxic ones. Simply thinking about a scene of a drunk bad boy pinning a fragile virgin down on a bed as she struggles, or a beautiful gentlewoman slapping a rakish duke with all her strength, triggers a natural stress response. Some people misinterpret the adrenaline as sexual arousal. Many translate it into "compelling page-turner."

But when I see romance readers getting excited over new books, they're not enthused by the promise of a high-concept conflict with secrets and intrigue. They're enticed by the promise of falling in love in their imaginations, because in real life most people only get to do that once or twice. The excitement of this theoretical romance between Xander and Yolanda comes from the dizzy rush of attraction when they meet, the giddy terror when one works up the courage to pursue the other, the explosion of sensations when they kiss for the first time, the nail-biting worry when they argue over marriage, and the heartbreak when these two people who clearly belong together are forced to part ways.

A "healthy relationship" doesn't mean a "conflict-free relationship." A couple could claim they've never argued about anything only if they've never talked about anything. It's impossible for two unique individuals to blend their lives together and never ever get mad at each other, never do anything they have to apologize for, and never have to give up anything they want. There are so many non-problematic ways to strain a fictional relationship, there's really no excuse for one partner to ever physically, sexually, or verbally assault the other.

Why Authors Should Write Characters from Different Cultures August 12, 2020

As I wrote in April, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone after getting burned by multiple "dumpster fires." Yet like a moth, I keep going back periodically to peek at the dancing flames.

One day last month I visited the site on my computer for a couple of moments. In the first moment, I found recommendations for a cool book series I hastened to reserve at the public library. In the second moment, I glimpsed multiple writers declaring with pride, "Because I'm not a person of color, I only write books about white characters now."

WTF mates? In the short period of time I stayed away from social media, how did everyone manage to completely invert the goal of #ownvoices—to increase the representation of minority cultures in literature—into a righteous dictum that white writers should never ever try to represent characters from minority cultures in literature?

The twisted logic, from the few tweets I scrolled past before noping out that day:

  1. "No white writer can write a minority character well."
  2. "White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."
  3. "That's not your story to tell."

While each of these arguments sprouted from a grain of truth, their ultimate conclusions are nonsense. Let's examine what people are really saying when they make these assertions.

"No white writer can write a minority character well."

The grain of truth: Every adult has a unique set of personal experiences and unconscious biases they've picked up over decades. Recognizing those biases and pushing past them to write about people with different experiences takes a lot of hard work.

Another grain of truth: Faux diversity runs rampant even today. I've seen publishing experts declare making a book "diverse" is super easy—just change minor character names like Brittany and Sean to Latisha and Juan!

Both of these grains can sprout into equally inaccurate conclusions:

  1. "People of color are sooo different, white people could never understand them."
  2. "People of color are exactly the same as white people, just with funny names and noses."

Believing one or the other is how authors end up writing bad books about people from other cultures. To write well, you have to find the balance in the middle. Culture can affect the way people think and express themselves in subtle ways. But also regardless of culture, people everywhere are fundamentally the same: same emotions, same needs, same basic desires and interpersonal conflicts.

If you have a background of privilege, writing a marginalized character is difficult. But so is writing from the perspective of a woman if you're a man, or vice versa. So is writing from the perspective of a hard-boiled police detective when your only experience with law enforcement was that one time you got a ticket for speeding. Or writing about characters in Alabama when you grew up in Oregon, writing about a gorgeous Manhattanite with an exciting dating life when you're a reclusive bookworm, or writing about foraging for nuts and berries in prehistoric world of wizards when you're comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.

I recognize my own limits as a writer. After reading Angie Thomas, I know it's beyond my capabilities to write from the first-person perspective of a Black teenager in contemporary Atlanta. After reading Sandra Cisneros, I wouldn't dare to write the story of an immigrant Latinx family.

But I'm not going to write nothing but books about half-German-Irish, half-Chinese-Singaporian librarians from Southern California for the rest of my life, because only that narrow type fits my specific personal experience. We all need to stretch, carefully and conscientiously, to create fictional worlds full of unique and interesting characters.

"White writers are stealing opportunities from writers of color."

The grain of truth: The publishing industry has long pushed aside talented authors of color who wrote their own stories, and instead rewarded white authors who wrote clumsy POC stories for white audiences. For decades publishers told Mexican writers their stories of immigration "wouldn't sell," and then they lavished money and praise on American Dirt. And crafted barbed-wire centerpieces for a dinner party to celebrate its publication.

Barbed-wire-themed centerpieces at the Flatiron dinner party for American Dirt

Yeah...not a good look.

However, if all white writers stopped writing about marginalized characters, what would happen? Would publishers rush out to find new marginalized writers because OMG there's a void of color we must fill ASAP? No. Publishers would continue to buy the works of white authors with established platforms and impressive sales records, only now those works will have all-white casts in them.

For white writers to actually give opportunities to writers of color, they'd have to stop writing completely. None of the self-righteous authors I saw on Twitter offered to give up their publishing contracts. They're still writing and busily promoting their books. They're still taking up those coveted slots. Volunteering to "stay in their lane" does nothing but fill the shelves with Caucasian, neurotypical, heterosexual characters from the Christian tradition.

It would be absurd to demand all writers from one ethnic group sacrifice their careers for writers of another. The problem of under-representation isn't caused by writers in the first place, but by publishing companies that long offered limited slots for books featuring people of color, claiming that "Black children don't read," "Asian fantasies don't sell," or "White women over twenty-five don't want interracial romances."

Why are writers blaming other writers for producing "too many" stories about people from marginalized backgrounds, instead of demanding publishers make room for all stories? It's frustrating to see Twitter meekly accept that shelf space for non-white or LGBTQ+ books is limited and fight over who deserves to fill it. It's like we're in a sci-fi show about a post-apocalyptic society that allows only ten percent of the population to live in a purified bubble city, so we all started murdering each other to establish who's worthy of The Bubble, instead of protesting for the government to build more bubbles.

"That's not your story to tell."

The whole seed packet of truth: Western Europeans have a centuries-long habit of colonizing other cultures, taking over their lands and governments, and retelling traditional stories with an imperialist twist. We all grew up reading and watching beloved classics told from the European settlers' perspective, portraying "explorers" as brave heroes and other cultures as exotic, primitive, and in desperate need of rescue by nice civilized Christians: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Disney's Davy Crockett, and so on.

Even today the most popular books and movies about different cultures place blue-eyed American protagonists in the center and people of color in the background for set dressing: The Help (2011) stars Emma Stone as a journalist writing about the lives of Black maids, The Great Wall (2016) stars Matt Damon as a mercenary who saves China from monsters, Green Book (2019) stars Viggo Mortensen as a chauffeur who repeatedly rescues his jazz-pianist client from racist bullies. The positions of characters on the official posters show whose perspective Hollywood considers most important.

Movie poster for The Help Movie poster for Great Wall Movie poster for Green Book

Stories have been told this way because (a) privileged novelists and scriptwriters default to writing from their own point of view, and (b) privileged publishers and producers believe audiences share that point of view. Those publishers and producers believe the white majority aren't interested in stories about people of color unless they're blockbuster tearjerkers about how much those poor, poor people suffer because their cultures are so backwards and violent. See: American Dirt, Memoirs of a Geisha, and The Kite Runner. Have you ever seen a bestselling adult novel in the U.S. with a happy Middle Eastern protagonist?

Seeing all this, it's tempting to say, "White people aren't allowed to write about other cultures anymore. They'll write some colonialist nonsense that capitalizes on other people's pain for profit. From now on only writers of color have the right to tell these stories."

However, that way lies gatekeeping.

If you try to make a rule that only writers from group A can write about group A, and writers from group B must stick to group B, to enforce it you must sort all writers into groups A or B. So what happens when a writer is part A and part B? When they're genetically A but adopted by a B family? When their faces and names aren't stereotypically A enough to seem "authentic"?

Then online mobs attack a mixed Black and Native American author for "misappropriating" Navajo legends in a fantasy novel. Publishers tell an aspiring Nigerian novelist her book about an anime-loving teen doesn't feel "authentically Nigerian." A poet in Indiana figures out he can slap a Chinese pseudonym on his work to sneak into journals and anthologies, because all that matters to gatekeepers is the appearance of #ownvoices.

Gatekeeping is inherently racist. It assumes all people from an ethnic background look the same on the surface, have the same life experiences, and express themselves the same way. Anyone who doesn't fit those preconceived notions of POC-hood is "not really a POC."

The solution is more stories, not fewer.

The problem people are attempting to solve by dictating who can write what is the poor representation of minorities in books published today. So let's address that problem the right way: through education.

When a well-meaning writer attempts to write a story from a marginalized point of view and gets it wrong, we point out the mistakes in critical reviews and discussions. When a publisher promotes an exploitative tearjerker about poor, suffering immigrants, we promote other books that portray immigrant experiences in more varied and nuanced ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said in her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story":

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

We're not fighting racial stereotypes by saying, "Everyone who doesn't fit a racial stereotype, shut up!" We can fight them by showing people how reductive and harmful those stereotypes are, through both candid conversations and representations in fiction.