From Lena Dunham to Junot Diaz, How To Write People Who Aren’t You

This spring, when Lena Dunham tried to explain why her HBO show Girls had ended up so white, a lot of folks were skeptical when she told NPR’s Fresh Air that the show’s palette was an accident. But as much as that statement was inartful, I thought there was something genuinely interesting and revealing about her explanation that she didn’t feel particularly confident writing experiences weren’t hers. She said:

I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls…I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.

I think this is a path that has to be picked out carefully, here. White people and people of color experience many of the same things. The essence of creativity is to imagine people who are not you and experiences that are not yours, whether you’re a white person writing a character of color, or a person who lives in the twenty-first century imagining the lives of people on Mars. That said, I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss the idea that it’s arrogant for a creator to assume that they possess insight into any possible life experience, no matter what their own background is. This is how we get writers’ rooms dominated by white guys who don’t believe there are things they can learn from women and people of color, or people with disabilities, or gay people, whether generally, or from the specific experiences of those people.

There is space between paralysis and the assumption of omnipotence. And the goal should be to get creators, be they Dunham or white men with overall development deals, to back off their extremes into that middle space. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, novelist Junot Diaz laid out what I think is a smart algorithm for writers: start from a place of humility when writing about experiences that aren’t yours, but don’t let that humility disuade you from working to get better. He explained:

The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are. For me, I always want to do better. I wish I had another 10 years to work those muscles so that I can write better women characters. I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.

“I can always do better and always keep growing” is a good rule of thumb for writers under any circumstances, and it’s a particularly good one here. But it relies on people wanting to keep growing, instead of getting overly comfortable where they are.