Should You Experience What You Write About?

In Professor Wheeler’s “Poetry & Place” class this semester, we had about five or six occasions where the class discussion went from the level of “good” to “damn good”. One such occasion came up when Professor Wheeler mentioned that some writers engage in code-switching in their novels and personal lives—that is, they speak much differently when speaking to a guy at a gas station than a fellow member of the English department.

Of course, this might seem to be an obvious application of common sense—you’re not going to use the same tone of voice and vocabulary with your lover that you would use with, say, a Dean (unless you’re trying to live out the Bob Dylan song “I Shall Be Free No. 10”). Different circumstances call for different sides of ourselves to emerge, and this does make sense practically. I’m not going to reference Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” while watching a football game in the frat house.  But the class conversation got very interesting when we started talking about the ethics of switching our vocabulary in relation to our peers—is it a dishonest, manipulative practice to change our personality to try to win favor with others? This idea of a split personality can be somewhat unsettling because the chameleon-like demand of adjusting to our surroundings suggests that we might act like someone we are not, which puts us at risk of becoming, in Holden Caulfield’s immortal words, “a phony.”

Professor Smith mentioned this trend to the class earlier in the semester—many stories about people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds are written by people who did not experience the disadvantageous circumstances that appear in the story. Certainly it is not necessary to experience something in order to write about it well—just look at the plethora of Civil War novels that have come out in the past thirty years to find proof of that—but surely this does raise some questions about the authenticity of experience. If all things are equal, is it better  if a person writing about an auto mechanic comes from a blue-collar background, or would it be perfectly all right if Mitt Romney penned the narrative?

My opinion on the subject matter would be this—if you have an inventive imagination and the ability to craft sentences like a Charles Dickens, then of course you can write about anything you want. But if you choose to write about someone or something that you have never experienced, then you are much more at risk of resorting to caricatures and stereotypes of the people you are depicting, and you should constantly guard against this if authenticity is a primary objective.

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