Return to site

I don't know what I don't know.

You know?

· inclusion,diversity,hollywood

Ignorance. It takes many forms. 

As a writer, it's a constant balance of writing what I know, from my personal experience, and writing what I don't know, to create worlds and characters that live outside my personal experience. Research means hours of Google usually, watching other films, reading books, articles, or maybe -- horrors -- leaving the house and traveling to some unknown place. 

But, there are some things that can't be learned through casual exposure. For instance, I can write about an aged person in a nursing home, and I can learn what a typical nursing home looks like, and operates. I can even take a visit to a local nursing home and learn what it smells like, feels like and what kind of atmosphere is soaked into the walls. But there is one thing I cannot know, and that is what it feels like to be an elderly person who spends all my time there. I don't know how time, boredom, sickness, dementia, and abuse might affect the way I see the world and those around me. I don't know what it feels like to expect a visit from a child after months of loneliness. You feel me?

I can IMAGINE, I can CREATE -- but I cannot KNOW. And there IS a difference. It's the basis of what they mean when they tell us writers to 'write what you know.' But unless you are writing an autobiography of sorts, there will always be elements of our stories that are written from a perspective that we don't know. It's unavoidable.

Some of what we bring to the page is instinctual. Some of it is cerebral. Left brain. Right brain. I think good writing comes equally from both sides of our brains. Emotional. Creative. Intuitive writing, combined with logical, detailed, structured thinking. However, I think great writing... award winning, timeless stories, come from the right brain. Sure, we can all imagine what it's like to be a different age, a foreigner in a new country, the opposite gender or a different race than our own, and tell ourselves that what we are writing are human qualities. And that is true to a limited degree, I believe.

Because what we don't know does not reveal itself to us if we don't even know that we don't know. You follow?

I know immediately when I'm reading work by a male writer. How? The female perspective is usually missing. The real experience. Maybe the writer captures glimpses, offers a few observations about human nature that ring true, but mostly, no. I can tell that he doesn't really know what it's like to walk the planet as a woman. I had this experience recently watching the trailer for KIDNAP, a story of a woman, played by Halle Berry, who takes her child's kidnapping into her own hands by chasing the perp through heavy traffic. SUVs are rolling over, crashing, blowing up. My first thought was, "Your child is in that vehicle! If it crashes, you'll be responsible for the death or serious injury of your kid, you dumb ass!" A mother's authentic response. But the message (of the trailer anyway), is that this woman is a HERO: "A mother will stop at nothing to protect her child." Not so sure about that! Would she kill her child to protect him? Made little sense to me, as a mother.  Any mother who would put her child in that much danger, is not a hero. She's reckless, at best. Will the film sell? Probably. Will it be entertaining? For sure. Did the filmmakers give a woman of color a lead role? Yes. Good for you. Here's your Strong Female Lead + Diversity Badge. But did they capture the authentic experience of a mother who's child has just been abducted? I doubt it.

Same is true I imagine for people of other races, and other socio-economic classes. I imagine that men who read my work may feel the same way about my male characters. I don't know what it's like to walk the earth as a man (though I probably know more about it than men understand the female perspective, mainly because the male perspective and experience is everywhere all the time, and I have had to learn to navigate a man's world, just as people of color have had to learn how to adapt to a white world). But, I certainly don't know what it's like to walk the earth as a man of color, a homeless man, or a powerful man. I just don't. I haven't had any real life experiences to draw from that even remotely compare. I can imagine, of course, but the nuance -- the small details that communicate to the audience that this experience is REAL -- will be missing. That level of authenticity -- an expert level -- can only be felt. We know it when we experience it in a film or any other piece of writing. It can't be taught. It can't be learned.

So, I focus on writing women's stories. It's what I know. And I do my best to ask readers who are male, and who are not white, to read my work and be honest with me about where I'm missing something and see if a conversation with them will help me gain a bit of insight into what that experience is like... and in the process I not only become a better writer but a better human being. A more empathetic human being. It's the gift that being a writer gives back to me. But I would never be so brave, or ignorant, to attempt a story from a lead character's perspective that was not female or white. Those stories should be told by the people that can dig deep into their own experiences to get at the real story inside the story.

Then, if we include more writers of diverse backgrounds better access to production, we will have characters with depth and nuance... they will have that special something that cannot be googled, observed or left-brained into existence.

That something is authenticity.

And the only way to unearth it, is to let it rise naturally from the subconscious of the writer that has a real life experience more akin to the lead character's story experience. To think that we can do the same job with the same level of authenticity, in my view, is arrogance.

All of this to say: inclusion and diversity in Hollywood is about more than creating characters and worlds from diverse backgrounds. It's about bringing people into the process at the creation level (writers, directors, producers) that can relate to those characters on a deep level. It's about opening up the writer's rooms to people of color, to women, to people with as many varied backgrounds and experiences as you have characters.