Free Speech, literature, publishing, race, Recommended, Top Stories, Top Stories, Top Stories, Top Stories, writing

Why Do People Tell Me I’m Not Allowed to Write?

When I first started writing, it was on something of a dare. In 8th grade my friends and I ate lunch in the librarian’s office in the school library. We’d had enough of the cafeteria, with its cliques, nasty comments, and seating hierarchies. Since one of us worked in the library helping shelve books (it wasn’t me), we bought our ice creams and fries in the lunch line and hightailed it to the bright, lovely library that took up the center core of the building. Picture The Breakfast Club‘s library, but sized down for middle school.

These library girls were badass. The wittiest, smartest, cattiest, snarkiest girls and I sat around the librarian’s conference table, and with the doors closed, we could say anything we wanted. What we mostly wanted to talk about would have gotten us into trouble in the lunch room, and one day Bree said we should write a story together, incorporating some of this material. I think it was Bree, but it might have been me.

We took out some loose leaf and started working on this story together. I found this intoxicating. Not just the content, which at the time was obscene but in retrospect seems all candy canes and lollipops, but this secret process of writing. We didn’t tell anyone about it. That night I took the pages home, and added some new details pulled straight from the pages of the Esquire magazine my father kept in the bathroom. The next day at lunch the pages were passed around, and we ate in silence, each girl reading. It was my first experience with collaboration and writing, and I didn’t want it to stop.

We passed the story around for a few weeks before Jenny’s mom found out and called my mom, who freaked out and searched my room for the pages, since Jenny said I was the one who had them. I’d unceremoniously dumped them in the little pink trash can under the desk in my room. Obviously that was the first place she looked, and my ass was grass. I got yelled at forever, basically, and hit too, because people did that back then. The upshot, when it was all over, was that I wasn’t allowed to write anymore. It was absolutely forbidden. The idle mind, it turns out, was the devil’s playground, so we were going to have to pave it over. My parents tried, anyway. I found myself out raking leaves in our pretty suburban yard every evening after sundown, with the task of raking until I was finished. I’d rake in long, neat rows, and in the ascending, New English fall moonlight I would compose vignettes and commit them to memory.

It served me well to write this way, to remember stuff, to recite it to myself so I wouldn’t forget it. In this way I have my own oral history, poems passed down from my ancestor youth, that rise to the surface like song lyrics. Writing was pretty much my whole deal after that. And I became a student of story.

My high school English teacher said, “Write what you know,” and told us about how in World War II, marching around Europe, he always had a paperback in his back pocket. He said books let him travel, transported him to somewhere else, and I thought of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a story that every American middle school kid had to read for a while. I thought, “Okay, so what do I know?” I started writing to see if I knew anything. I watched people, and I listened. I would try to write down real conversations I’d had with my parents, discerning want and motivation, but also sorting out what my childhood was about, thinking about where I came from, about the things that had happened to me. I found out that I didn’t know too much, but I could learn.

It became natural for me to write about anything that came to mind, anything I thought was compelling. And because much of what I wrote was in the form of dialogue, I figured I should write plays. I went to college to do just that.

The Performing Arts Center at Sarah Lawrence College was my second favorite place on campus, after the library. I wrote about my experiences, and I looked up to the amazing grad students who were in a few of my workshops. I wrote what I knew, all the love, joy, and fury of disaffected youth. I felt I was involved in an incredible process, wherein I could take everything that had happened to me and figure out how I wanted to tell the story. I decided to be the main character of my own life.

I had professors who encouraged me to not care at all about what anyone would think, not an audience, not family, not friends, to not worry about who I might offend or insult, to just write. I took it to heart, and more than that I respected the artistic and intellectual integrity of the impulse. We all did, and the work coming out of these sessions was really strong. Nothing was off the table. We wrote about hating our roommates, even though half the room knew those girls, we wrote about our own drug use, our parents, the pressure we felt, and while it sounds like therapy, what we were doing was honing our ability to tap emotion in service to story, which is essential when you’re writing drama. We were method writers, we wrote what we knew, and what we knew was how we felt, and we knew that feeling was universal. Our backgrounds mattered with regard to the characters we wrote and the stories we told in as much as they were personal to us, and infused the stories we were writing with that much more of our own guts. But while these backgrounds were a door that each of us could walk through, and kaleidoscope visualize our pasts, they were not restrictive. They did not prohibit any of us from walking through a different door in our imagination. We could travel anywhere.

This glorious 20th century attitude of freedom of expression and individual drive did not make it with me to grad school. I went to grad school because I didn’t know what else to do after five years in the work force that sought to crush me to death with meaninglessness and horrifying boredom punctuated with happy-hour-long bouts of rage. That and I was invited. I’d been doing indie theater in New York for a few years and I wanted the chance to focus on making that work full time, even if it was only for the course of my study.

My experience in grad school started out really well. The nine writers in my year were tight, and we were open, and we had incredible writing professors who pushed until we broke apart and had to rebuild ourselves. We talked about the nature of the theatrical art form, and felt fully that we were at school to add to the intellectual and artistic discourse in the medium.

Talk started building through the academic theater community that there was something wrong with casting directors, and we had to do something about it. The issue was that when a white playwright’s work was produced, casting directors were assuming that they should cast white actors. We were all aghast. That was so exclusionary! As a method writer, I wrote for actors, still do. My favorite thing is when an actor tells me they want to play one of my characters. We did not want our work to be made unavailable to actors on the basis of some casting director’s prejudice. The horror, really. So we writers in our square-tabled room on the 6th floor of Columbia’s Dodge Hall decided to get it sorted. The white writers in the room started adorning the character list pages of our scripts with words to the effect of: Unless otherwise specified, actors can be of any race or ethnicity.

That was the thing for a while, but then the more we started to think about it, and to hear back from the community at large, and by “we” I mean basically the entire student body and faculty of all of the grad school drama departments in American universities, which was also “the community,” it turned out that our simple phrase on a character page was insufficient, and even a little bit racist.

By saying the characters could be of any racial or ethnic background, we were saying that they weren’t specific to any of them, and if they weren’t specific to any of them, in the era of critical race and gender theory, then we were basically erasing their identities. Not cool, thought we. After that, we made absolutely sure to designate characters with specific racial or ethnic labels in order to force casting directors to cast across racial lines.

The idea then became that we needed to give specific thought and consideration to a character’s race and ethnic background before we wrote them—that these identifiers were in fact so essential to every human being that they needed to be set before we created the character so that we didn’t risk writing up someone of a specific identity wrong. The idea was that if you simply conjured a character up out of your imagination and began writing about them without knowing about their background, your own bias would have an unhealthy impact on the way the character was written. For the white writers in the group, the risk we were teaching ourselves to avoid was the possibility of writing, say, a black character without adequately understanding the black American experience.

Given the prevalence of privilege theory at the time, and the concern over the unconscious bias inherent in whiteness, this was an acute concern. I started to ask myself, “Can a white writer ever write black characters in an honest and truthful way?” In the past, I had written black characters based on people I knew, as well as black characters made out of whole cloth in my imagination, as well as characters who were Asian or Hispanic. Now I started to think that I hadn’t done enough research, that perhaps my plays that featured black, or other racial or ethnic minorities, were unintentionally biased. This bias could be made apparent if the character adhered too closely to cultural stereotypes about their race. Which would be bad, obviously, and show that the character was more a conglomeration of biases than an artistic creation.

This was a serious, academic arts concern, and it spilled over into the indie scene. I wasn’t the only one tying myself up in knots trying to figure out if I was a racist asshole too steeped in whiteness to ever again pick up a pen. Slews of blog posts abounded on my social media feeds decrying white people who wrote badly about characters who were not white as a direct result of their privileged whiteness. It was morally reprehensible, was the idea, it constituted erasure, and white people had been shitty to people of color for long enough.

After my experience in childhood of being told not to write because what I was writing was immoral, I was getting the same message as an adult. There were things I should not write about because it was immoral.

In the community, this morphed from the idea that white people were incapable of accurately writing black and other racial and ethnic minorities so don’t even try, into a situation where a writer who was steeped in any kind of perceived privilege should not write a character who is perceived by the metric of the hierarchy of oppression to be less privileged than them. Meaning that a cis-white-het female writer would find it extraordinarily difficult to create a character who was a trans black queer female, because she just didn’t have the bandwidth to bridge the gap between the two identities. Writing what you know became don’t write about identities that don’t match your own unless you seek insight and take direction from someone who identifies as that identity. A whole new profession sprung up overnight: sensitivity readers.

I saw a post from a person who does this as a side hustle. She had read a writer’s play and had some critiques from the perspective of critical race and gender theory. She is a talented writer, and I was interested in her view, but what really struck me was her note that race is more than just skin deep. I thought about this, and something about it didn’t ring true. If race is something that is meaningful in deeper ways than skin tone, okay, but what are those things, how are they defined, how are they quantified? How is a writer supposed to include all the features of a character that define them as belonging to a particular racial group without creating a character that is just a conglomeration of biased stereotypes about their race?

So that’s how we got to where we are now. The American indie and academic theater has come to the conclusion that it is racist for a white writer to only write plays about white people and racist for a white writer to write plays with racial and/or ethnically diverse characters.


Libby Emmons is a writer and theatre maker in New York. She is co-founder of the Sticky series and blogs at 
li88yinc.com. You can follow her on Twitter @li88yinc.