Writing With Courage

Every now and then someone asks how to handle a story topic that isn’t currently “politically correct.” I include an example of such material in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing (to be released in July 2007 by Lighthouse Point Press). It’s about the time I ordered extra spicy food at a Chinese restaurant. I include the dialect of the immigrant Chinese owner in the story, introducing it at the top in the title, “Esstrah Spicy.”

The original version of this story included words like “evil gleam” and “sinister grin.” I would have used these terms to describe a blue-eyed, blond-haired Swede in the same situation — in my mind, they had nothing to do with ethnicity. However, as I read the story with an eye toward publication, I realized those particular terms fed into wide-spread stereotypes from decades ago that had nothing to do with the story. Other words serve the purpose equally well, and I edited accordingly.

I was aware a few people might be uncomfortable with the dialect, but it was as much part of the ambiance of that restaurant as the Asian decor. I would find a glibly American accent on the tongue of Chinese restaurant staff as jolting as French Provincial furnishings. I don’t think anyone would question using dialect if the character hailed from Boston — is China any different? The dialect is an integral part of the story. It stayed.

Where do you draw the line on political correctness? My personal rule of thumb is to tell the story as I understood and saw it, as long as I’m not being intentionally hurtful or mean. Within that determination, if I’m aware something is questionable, I work through this list as I make my decision:
  • Is there another way of stating this without changing the meaning? If there is, I'll change it.
  • Does this description or incident lend significant value to the story’s purpose? If it doesn't, it shouldn't be in there anyway.
  • Do I have any underlying malice or spite toward the person I’m describing? Malice and spite turn a story bitter. Better to not tell it at all, or at least to wait until the edge is off.
  • Does the benefit of including this material outweigh the risk of offending or hurting?
  • Does this material express my own truth?
I would never advocate being purposely crash, disrespectful, or insensitive. However, scrubbing all questionable references to personal characteristics that define the uniqueness of others would sanitize the life out of stories, rendering them sterile and boring.

This same sanitizing can distort historical accuracy, giving a false sense of the times you live in. For example, in today’s culture, using the term “Nigger Town” is beyond imagination for most people. But if you grew up in certain parts of the United States in the early decades of the last century, that term was in common usage. It may have been a significant part of your mental map. While it will sound shocking, even offensive, you deny the reality of the times by writing around it. You can soften the impact by including a line or two to explain the cultural context of the times, and perhaps write about your own evolving vocabulary and attitudes. The explanations allow you to teach and witness in a positive way.

You’ll have to make your own decisions, based on your own sense of inner truth and personal integrity. Write with tenderness and courage. Celebrate differences, and don’t let the PC Police force you into hiding your reality and truth.

Write on,

Sharon Lippincott, aka Ritergal

No comments :