Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One true story

I vaguely recall a comment exchange I once had with April Henry about generalizing: how people assume their own experience is universal. I don't remember the original topic that sparked the exchange, but I do remember that realization hitting like a bolt of lightning: I generalize, too, even though I know how faulty generalizations can be.

Growing up, the generalizations that bothered me usually had to do with my being a girl. I never seemed to fit the stereotypes. Girls were supposed to be bad at math ... uninterested in science ... afraid of snakes and spiders ... adore makeup ... complain about being fat ... love shoe shopping ... None of which applied to me. It's not surprising, given that there are more than three billion girls and women on this planet, that we're not all alike. And what bothers me even more is when people take a single instance from their lives as proof that these generalizations are true. "My son prefers football to dolls, so it's true that boys are more sports-oriented." That kind of thing. 

Here's an example from my own life. I grew up in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, and because of that, I assumed Catholicism was the world's (or at least the country's) dominant religion. Imagine my surprise to hear in history class that some people thought John F. Kennedy might not be able to get elected President because of prejudice against Catholics. I may have been in junior high school before I realized a group I had thought of as a majority was a minority; I'd assumed that because almost everyone around me was Catholic, almost everyone everywhere was. That's just one small example, but I think it makes my point about how we think of our own lives as normal, our own experiences as universal. (But of course, this may be a generalization also! Maybe others are more aware than I was of how specific our lives really are.)

Some experiences are widely shared, of course: I suspect that love and fear and anger and hope feel much the same to people everywhere, although they may come in a variety of packages. For me, part of the joy of reading is discovering that common ground. But when I was reading this post of Brent Hartinger's, I started thinking again about generalizations. He makes a lot of great points in that post, but at the moment I want to focus on the idea that there is no single experience of how it is to be ... [fill in the blank]. There is no single authentic female experience, no single authentic gay experience, etc., etc. Yet every story is individual and tells of an authentic experience.

In my writing, I'm conscious of trying to build a body of work. Although I have overlapping themes and some similar characters from one work to another, I try to cover different worlds and different perspectives in each book. Rich and poor; experienced and innocent; confident and insecure; male and female; etc., etc. And even so, I don't claim to tell the true story of the world I'm writing about; I'm just trying to tell one true story. (And by true I don't mean literally true, since I'm writing fiction, but emotionally true.)


  1. I have so much to say on this subject, Jenn, but will spare you my ranting. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    And that second paragraph? Generalizations about being a girl? Wow do we ever have loads in common.

    No one shares the exact same story. So happy to know you're working from that place of emotional truth!

  2. Wow, this is such a great post. Love what you say about generalizations not being as universal as we think they are, and writing emotional truth. Thanks for the food for thought!