As part of Clarion West‘s on-going series of one-day workshops, I attended the one titled “Writing the Other” taught by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. Their book with the same name is the first one mentioned any time the subject of writing the other comes up. The book, I have since learned, came out of the class they’ve been teaching for the last decade.
This topic has been on my mind a lot since I signed on to write Kensei for Timid Pirate. I would like to say I was a good boy and I read the book while working on Kensei. What really happened is I read the first few chapters while trying to read something else, got distracted and forgot about it. Of course, when I was introduced to Nisi Shawl a couple months ago at a friend’s reading, the first thought to come to mind was a panicked, “Oh God, I didn’t finish her book!”
So when the class came around, I thought it a great opportunity to offset that oversight. This will hardly be the last time I will write the other, and I’ve found that this is a constant learning process.
The venue for the class was a little unusual. As best I can tell, it was the employee meeting room at the University Book Store. I would not have previously thought you could rent out such meeting spaces. It may have been a special arrangement with Clarion West’s director, since Clarion West works with the book store a lot to host events there.
I was pretty anxious going into the class. I have a pathological aversion to “being in trouble” and I was certain I was going to stick my foot into my mouth pretty quickly and then be chased around with pitchforks. (Which, I should emphasize, was not likely. I’m just really good at getting myself wound up in my head.) But the instructors were very good at setting a welcoming tone from the very beginning.
The class started off with each person making a promise to have non-combative attitudes towards other participants. Normally I’m iffy about rituals, but in this instance I would have to eat my words. This really established the group as a safe place to make honest mistakes. Then as they started talking, they acknowledged some of the fears that come into writing the other, which also put me more at ease. It was very much a sense of, “We know what you’re worried about, and it’s okay.”
I don’t know what I had expected in terms of demographics for the class. Of the perhaps twenty people, most were women. Which seems common for a lot of the writing oriented events I’ve attended in the area. There were also a few people of color that I can recall (which was a good reminder that someone is always the other for someone else), and one person I knew to be a professional writer.
Much of the basic advice I heard was similar to what I had heard from other discussions on writing the other, though, to be fair, the other conversations were probably all conveying information they had learned through either the workshop or the book. But there were still many new things I learned, and my vocabulary for talking about these things improved significantly.
The writing exercises proved to be the most potent thing I got out of the class. I’m generally very bad at self-driven writing exercises, so it was really good for me to dig in on these. The exercises mostly had a random element to them, so my brain had to twist around a bit to get around some of the things. I was pretty wiped out by the time I got home, and this was just from trying to adjust POV a lot. But exercises like writing the same thing under different points of view was very revealing. It was one thing to mentally know these things, it was another thing to watch it shift around on the page as I wrote.
The instructors also provided some advice for researching the cultures you want to write about. Some of their advice I had heard before, but more I hadn’t. And they really dug deep into the topic. As with a lot of the things presented in the class, these are probably included in the book. So I won’t go into a whole lot of detail for fear of diminishing the value of the class and the book. (And, really, it’s a very inexpensive book and will give you better info than I can in my hackneyed attempts to recount everything I learned. Seriously, just buy it.)
One thing I feel I can share, and really feel compelled to, is the Carl Brandon Society. It is an organization dedicated to the increase of racial and ethnic diversity in speculative fiction. As I understand it, it is not an organization only for people of color, but one for anyone interested in increasing diversity in fiction. And they provide resources to aid with this.
The latter part of the class, which I guess they were trying out for the first time, was a section on language and dialect. This presented a lot of tools for thinking about what you use to convey through dialogue something about a character, as well as some things to try and avoid. The latter was where things dovetailed the most with the theme of “Writing the Other,” as this is a point where authors may cause the most offense by trying to be “authentic.” I foresee some trouble spots I’ll be dancing around in some future projects I have in mind, so this was a good thing for me to hear about.
Over the course of the class, the teachers provided examples of writing the other done well. I’m providing them below to help support the authors and also share the information. The teachers also provided examples of it done not so well, but I won’t share those. (Unless, of course, I misread my notes and post something in error. If something disappears from this list, you’ll know I was wrong.)
- Triton by Samuel R. Delaney
- Diaspora by Greg Egan
- Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
- Engine Summer by John Crowley
- “The Night They Missed The Horror Show” by Joe R. Lansdale
- Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes
- “The Tawny Bitch” by Nisi Shawl from the anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories
These in particular were cited in the section regarding writing dialect.