The other day, I felt the need to illustrate a particular point to one of my writing classes. This is what I did: I took four short excerpts (2 pages each) from four books. I removed identifying information about the authors from the margins, and then I asked the students to read the excerpts and tell me what they thought they knew about the writers.
Excerpt #1: An old preacher writing to his son.
Excerpt #2: A teenage girl helping her father try to save a horse from drowning.
Excerpt #3: A black midwife going about her day.
Excerpt #4: A man in a post apocalyptic wasteland.
They read an discussed in groups and then we discussed as a class what they thought they knew about the authors and then I told them where the excerpts came from.
Excerpt #1: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Excerpt #2: Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann
Excerpt #3: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Excerpt #4: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The point I was making – or trying to make – is that who we are doesn’t have to be who we write, especially where it concerns gender. The vast majority of the students were unable to nail the correct gender of the writer (I didn’t ask them about gender, I determined their conclusion from which pronoun they used).
The mistake many of us make, be it as writers or people or both is to assume that certain groups of people are fundamentally different from other groups. We aren’t. People are people. It’s only the experiences that are different. The best writers don’t have a magical ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of a different species, they have the ability to imagine other experiences. Once you at least try to put yourself in the position of another person, especially one who doesn’t share your race or gender, once you see what the world shows them, you begin to see that we are all much more similar than we give ourselves credit for.