May 21, 2012
Reader Mail: What should I do?
Sometimes I get email from readers in which they ask me questions that require detailed answers. In the past I’ve responded to some of those questions on my blog, and today I’ve decided to make it a little more official by creating a category called Reader Mail, where you can find my previous reader mail Q&As.
Here’s a question from a reader that I’ve been meaning to answer for a long time:
I’m writing to you to ask your advice. I’m a writer. I’ve always been a writer. And when I complain about the fact that there are few LGBT teen fiction books that I haven’t already read, my friends tell me that I should write my own. And I know I will write my own. But again, I’m 17. I am busy, what with freaking out about acne, taking and re-taking my SAT’s, and trying to have a maybe-girlfriend. I don’t have time to write a book. And I feel so isolated, like no one writes about people like me because people like me don’t matter, don’t exist.
What should I do?
I have a very long answer for you.
First of all, people like you do exist and you do matter. You absolutely matter! The degree of your worth as a human being is not at all related to the number of books written about LGBT people — or the number of TV shows or films with LGBT characters, or even the way those LGBT characters are represented. Popular culture is powerful, and when we don’t see ourselves in it very often, it can make us feel like we’re unimportant. But that’s not true.
Contemporary popular culture in the United States (and I include books in this) comes out of a system, and that system has historically favored straight white men. That’s why you see way more books, movies, TV shows, etc., that feature straight white men. It’s not right; it’s just the way things have been.
Thankfully, things are changing. They have been for a long time, though change can feel inordinately slow. But these days you can find way more books, TV shows, etc., about LGBT people than you could even 10 years ago. If you’re looking for more to read, you can start with my list of recommended reads, and then, since you’re clearly a voracious reader, you can branch out to the reviews on the Lambda Literary Foundation website, or check out these lists (LGBT YA and children’s books, LGBT adult books) from the American Library Association. There’s really a lot out there! I hope it can help you feel like you’re less alone.
Secondly, that’s great that your friends are supportive of you as a writer! I’m glad that you have friends who understand how important that is to you. And I hope you will write your own stories someday. But you don’t need to feel pressured to do it all RIGHT NOW. It sounds like you have a full plate, and maybe what you need is permission to let go of some things.
One thing your email suggested to me was that you might believe that it’s your responsibility to write about LGBT people because you’re also LGBT, and that feels like a lot of pressure. Pressure to do it soon! Pressure to do it well! I don’t know for sure if you feel this pressure, but if you do, let me tell you something.
Very well-meaning people often advise writers to “write what you know,” and that can be good advice, but it can also be very limiting. If I followed it, I never would have written Ash, which involves magic and fairies. Another often-overlooked consequence of “write what you know” is the idea that you should write about people like yourself. So, if you’re Asian American, you should write about Asian Americans. If you’re gay, you should write about gay people. If you’re straight and white, you should write about straight white people.
These are all lies. Writers can and should write about what interests them. No writer should be limited to writing only about people exactly like them. And gay people are not the only writers who can write about gay people.
That means you are not responsible, alone, for writing books about LGBT people. As a writer, you are only responsible for writing the stories that are specific to your creative needs. You might very well choose to write about LGBT people, and that’s great, because there certainly is value in telling the stories of your own community and your own experience. But you don’t need to rush yourself.
I get a lot of email from young writers who are in high school and want to know how they can get published. The one thing I want to tell them—and you—is that you don’t need to hurry into this. It’s okay to slow down.
Writing takes time, and it takes experience. There are young writers who have written amazing things, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t write now—just that if you don’t, it’s okay. Because writing is one of the few professions where age is a benefit. The more life you experience, the more stories you have to tell, and hopefully, the better you’ll be able to tell them.
So, if you feel like you don’t have time to write now, then don’t. As you say, you’re busy! And the things you’re doing are important. They will come to inform the stories you write in the future. Personally, I think finding a maybe-girlfriend is just as important as writing a novel (and maybe even more so).
If you want to write right now, then do. But you don’t need to pressure yourself to produce anything publishable. If you want to write, then write for yourself. Write to entertain yourself and to comfort yourself. Write for fun. Write because you want to, not because you think you should.
If you have a question you’d like to ask me, you can email me at mlo [at] malindalo [dot] com. I regret that I’m unable to answer every question, and I reserve the right to post your question anonymously if I answer it.