Writing on a Tightrope

In this socially-conscientious climate, writing can feel like walking on a tightope. How do you adapt?

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For new writers in this day and age, it can often feel like pleasing people is like walking on a tightrope. With the social climate the way it is, everything can seem like an issue—a trap waiting to spring should you say the wrong thing.

The “grow a thick skin” rhetoric gets thrown around a lot, and while I agree with this (though struggle myself in more ways than one), I also believe that in order to be a good writer, one must also be proactive in growing their empathetic muscles. This reasoning for this is twofold:

  1. Stepping into the shoes of other individuals and their reasoning, and thinking with a more open, grey-lined point of view, can help a writer create realistic, tangible characters;
  2. You’re more likely to learn from your mistakes as a writer if you’re given feedback.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll never stop saying it: I know plenty of writers who don’t use beta readers, or even editors, because they dislike the idea of being ‘censored.’ From my position, this just screams of being thin-skinned. It also shouts from the rooftops, “My way or the highway.”

Why am I talking about this? Well, it may come of no surprise to learn that J.K. Rowling has come under scrutiny for her comments regarding trans rights. To many people, what she said may seem benign or like the right thing to say, and now they’re learning it isn’t—not to the people it affects.

Where I stand on the issue is right in line with John Scalzi, an author who, in the wake of J.K Rowling’s controversial statement, has been asked by fans to never hurt them. Well, we all know this is impossible. We are human and we make mistakes.

We live in minutiae; a bubble. What I know is very different from what others do, and I have to constantly flex my empathetic muscles to understand the reasoning behind some of the most benign or malignant behaviours of others.

I will still get things wrong. Why? Because the issue isn’t in what I know I don’t know—I can seek those answers out—but in what I don’t know that I don’t know. If I don’t know that I don’t know something, how will I ever know to learn about it, unless by accident? The void of knowledge, and the inability to see that it is there, is what often gets people (not just authors) in trouble with those around them.

I’m human.

John Scalzi is human.

J.K. Rowling is human.

That doesn’t mean we have licence to be cruel, but that we all have licence to live and learn. Some choose not to—that is their decision, right or wrong—and readers will feel vindicated in that resolution, while others will turn away.

What I’m trying to say to every new writer that is currently terrified of ‘cancel culture’ is this: remember that you are human. If you’re genuinely concerned about harming others with your story, then beta readers and sensitivity readers are definitely a good option. That being said, it is also worth remembering that you cannot change a book once it’s published—even if you change it, the first edition still exists, albeit discontinued.

You can only take what you’ve learnt and apply it to the next adventure. That is the beauty of being human: we learn.

It is also worth noting here that any story worth its salt has had a decent run through with a fine-tooth comb before it is read by the public. Even so, not everything gets caught. I’ve read—and then reviewed—a traditionally-published book that had some disturbing implications; other reviews of the same book haven’t picked up on these.

I doubt J.K. Rowling’s tweet went through any re-writes. In fact, it isn’t a very original tweet in itself. There are plenty of variations on the internet. If I didn’t have my feet firmly embedded in the lives of those affected by her words, I probably wouldn’t have seen how dismissive it appeared.

Public speaking has no drafts, no editing. You cannot change the words once they have left your mouth. Sometimes I’ll say something that makes sense to me but will be interpreted differently by someone else. Maybe a word will have a different connotation to different groups. Or maybe I’ll say something for absolutely no reason, or know that it isn’t quite right. Maybe a word is wrong? I’m an author, not a public speaker.

All I can say is that I am human and open to discussion, and to learning. Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes it isn’t. That’s where the thick skin comes in.

It really is true, there is no pleasing everyone.

Write what you want to write.

Just don’t be afraid of constructive feedback, because it may genuinely help you in getting your story be more sensitive and clear. But, don’t be afraid to fight for it either.

Writing really is a tightrope. Sometimes you slip and fall, but if you keep getting back on it, you’ll get better.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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