Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Arisia Workshop on Writing The Other, led by Nisi Shawl (notes)

f Shawl presents “Writing the Other”. In this workshop, Nisi will present a hands-on writing class featuring exercises and explorations of ways to create believable characters of a different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or ability. Participants will be asked to bring some of their own writing to work on, but sharing is not required. Expect to spend three hours learning by doing.

First a discussion on defining differences: e.g. weight, race, bisexual, also a reader, a person who uses big words, disability issues, fibromyalgia

Difference is not monolithic.
For people in the dominant paradigm, you need an instruction manual for everyone else's differences.
How you are made to feel different: height, weight, age55, W.African religion

"dominant paradigm"=group with power, generic person, neutral, "unmarked state"
ROAARS = acronym for Religion Orientation(sexual) Age Ablity Race Sex(as in gender)
Differences that appear in US and Canada marked as important
ROAARS doesn't include economic status / Class
group promise
REPTILE brain function
If you have a personal fail, just acknowledge and own it.  We're all afraid of being labelled a bigot.
The primitive part of the brain needs dichotomy. stay/run good/bad - oversimplify reactions w/ others
brain scientist (Vicka Corey):
"reptile" is really deep structure, not educable, preprogrammed, weed out own species from others.
As social people we develop out to the cortex.
Personal interactions vs institutional.
What would we consider the Dominant Paradigm or
young, 30's adult white straight abl bodied christian protestant male medium build no facial hair
If you tell a story about man who fell in the river. Then people's picture of the man is of the unmarked state.  If the man turns out to be black and gay then it transforms from being about a man who falls into a river into a  story about a black homosexual who fell in the river, and people may ask why did you make him black or gay.  They could complain that he's "black for no reason."
Descriptions of black people in novels, someone brought up Starship Troopers where the main character (Filipino for no reason?) looks in the mirror and notes his curly hair.
Nisi says, "My hair is not curly, it's kinky"

Pick a celebrity of any political/ethnic, like Lindsey Lohan. Now pretend you're the chosen one and you're meeting someone very different in the ROAAR, such as a homeless person.
Here Margie blanks out on all famous people and attributes it to having had less than 6 hours of sleep per night since the previous Wednesday.  I type nothing for about two minutes while everyone scribbles or types around me.  Blink.
OK, I'm Barack Obama and I'm meeting a homeless person.  I'd probably be relying on my background in community organizing and recommend some resources.  
That's getting no where.  How about that guy parodied on SNL, running for Mayor now, what's his name?  I can't believe I can't think of... So sleepy.
I'm the ex chief of staff. 
I'm Harison Ford, I used to be a carpenter.
4 minutes are up.
Nisi asks:  Was one of the people closer to the unmarked state or not?
POV a lot like you?  Then did character have same view as you?

Someone reads a funny internal monologue of Snooky's view of a librarian.

New term:  PARALLAX
Similar to meaning of sighting stars from different points on the earth or how 3-d vision works with two eyes, different views.
Compare the views to pinpoint where object actually is.
Person of marked state's view of unmarked state.
People don't wake up in the morning and say, "Wow, I'm black today."
(Some remark about how adolescents sometimes do.)
XKCD web comic. view of color. what colors men see vs women.
Men tends to describe things less in terms of color.
She drew up in a '67 mustang vs a light blue sedan
Andy asks, Why do I need to know the color of this person's sweater?
Men may be more fixated on the size, dimension of things than women are.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler is a wonderful example of parallax. Is she an Alien? Late 19th century West. Woman sees her as suffragette. Chinese railworker describes her skin in terms of particular porcelin and asumes she's prostitute because she's ugly.

Exercise #2:
Pair off and write dialogue with each other.
everyone gets 2 card with characteristics.
I found something you lost with your phone number.  A calendar.  Do you need this back?
work out logistics of where you'd go to get it back.
8 minutes. (my card said I was a DJ with Alzheimers.  My partner's said she was a polyamorous man dodging child support.)

- Hello, hello?
-- Hi.  I was at Oak Park today, and I found something of yours.  A calendar?
- Huh?
-- You lost a calendar?
-Who is this?
-- Look, I found something of yours--uh, your name's Sarah?  It's a calendar with a bunch of numbers and names on it.  Looks like you have a lot of female friends.
- My friends?  Why?  You have my calendar?  My gosh, I need that back.  Why are you talking about my friends?
-- Oh, no reason.
-Why won't you tell me your name?
-- It's Joey.  Well, look, I can meet you somewhere to return your calendar.  Maybe at a bar?
-Oh, no.  I don't drink, very much, any more.  Could you come by the station?  I work at WKIZ.  The address is in the front of the calendar.  You could leave it with the receptionist.  She's very nice.  Pretty too.
-- Yeah, sure, that works.  You'll be there?  I'd like to return it to you, you know, personally.
- Yes.  I'm here now.  My shift ends at...  I'm sorry, who is this again?

------------------- pro is a good website for neo writers (major workshop or sales)
What happened in workshop:
J Peland: struggle to bring up characteristics
My characteristics were bald and moslem.  It is hard to tell on the phone that someone is bald.
Brian Gardner: worrying about trying too hard with stereotype. Rural teen.
Julia Ross: I had Filipino English as 2nd language.  I know nothing about Filipino.

Andy: what's on card doesn't work itself into dialog per se but it colors the conversation.

Nisi: what people say may be reflecting what they think you are more than what they are.
Nisi: Going on from there.. I also wanted to talk about Categorical Thinking and the idea of Generalizing.
Vary: How Generalization helps and not. It is a 3-edged sword. Can be helpful. e.g. use more color names. Every man isn't like the generalized one. Need to know specifics of character. Raised by women who discuss color naming. (Denisov as a decorator should be more color-describing. W/ interst in art history, reference to famous paintings.)
Trying to apply a characteristic across the board. Hairless cats. Sphinx, disease, shaved, kitten.
How categories people use reveal their social structure. e.g. Fool's War by Vera? Patel? Her categorization point out that most people have brown skin and no religion.  Character describes another as having skin of milk and strawberries.
White Queen by Gwynyth Jones. colonization. alien talks about the idea of gender as astrological symbol-it's a parlor game. they are hermaphrodites, choose to be male/female as if it wer a cosmo quiz type.
Greg Egan - future in which humans are not born in bodies. They are uploaded intelligences.  Uploaded into a Virtual Reality that mimics now? Or specialy-organized tiojns.
Futures in which there is no race will still have categories.
Most married people are straight etc.
In science there's the issue of: data vs anecdote
darkmatter book. all african-descended writers. not all characters are. some s. asian, ...
Exercise #3:
Finding differences and similarities:
How 2 people in each picture are the same and How they are different.
(Handing out magazine photos...)

Both tough guys. Both have hats. Black Cop vs White Cowboy.
Cowboy independent. Cop enforces and follows rules. State trooper.
Horse/nature vs roads/cars/machines.
Away from people vs interacting w/ people
Both tough, disciplined, in good shape,
Cowboy more physical work.
Cowboy might just be guy on vacation in cowboy hat.  Trooper is definitely at work.  Or likes to dress up in costumes.  Like Village People.  So that in common: they both could be Village People.
Cop looking down at me.  Authority. Confrontational.
Cowboy looking down and away.  Contemplative.
oops was doing it wrong.  was supposed to do all similarities followed by all differences.  or the other way.  Oh well.
Cowboy looks peaceful, not troubled by others, looking at campfire, calm, untroubled, slightly hypnotized by flame perhaps, but not very.
Cop looks like he has a problem with persons.  Trouble . Staring down trouble.
Angle of photos very dramatic.  I'm looking down on cowboy from slight angle.  Cop looking down at me from very big angle.  Photographer must have been lying down in the road.

Nisi: Our default may be to look for differences.
With someone whose ROAARS are different you should certainly do [I wasn't paying attention. darn.]
Nisi writng Loisa May Alcott type potboiler W.Indian planter's illegitimate daughter imprisoned by relative who wants her inheritance, work with CONGRUENCE.
(e.g. Dowland: "love is love in beggars and in kings." [listen to Sting sing it..])
She reads and loves big words like me.
My intended audience also reads and have probably been in love.
Similarity in being religious even if different religions.
Find your similarity, analoguous experience to your character's.

Varya: Kidnapped sex slave in SF poor uneducated Korean potato farmer.
I haven't been sold in prostitution but I have been trapped in a horrible soul-sucking job.  She's compassionate to 3-legged bird and made things worse.  We can all relate to trying to help but making things work. Consulting with SME's help too.
Nisi: A point of relation.  For your readers and for yourself to the charcters.

Exercise #4 Congruence
Do 1 of 2 things. Your choice.
Mess with one scene in the writing you brought. Change at least one major ROAAR's characteristic to one that's different from my ROAAR, then they do something they love doing and I love too.
Select something that already differs.
OK, select a character with dffrent ROAARs or change if needed.
I guess I just don't get it.  My characters are already doing what they do.  Some of the things they do I like.  They have sex.  I like that. Others, would it , wow, it just occurred to me the woman guard character feels instinctively more different from me than the man, main character Denisov.
OK, if an old black gay man is bowling he's bowling.  How is that different?  Put him in a wheelchair and I can talk about physical differences.  Very old--the ball is heavy.  Once you bend down to roll the ball, it's hard to get up.
Bowling brings back memories about being younger and bowling w/ friends now dead.
Well, too late.  Exercise is over.
Stafford changed his black ex-slave character to an Asian sheriff with different set of priorities.  Now can go back to original piece and no longer blind.  Can see views.  Parallax.  Similarities in not slaves but treated like slaves. Different set of problems.

Vicka: hanged gender and didn't make much difference but characters tried to find a common ground.

Jennifer P. had her profoundly disabled character dance. e.g. belly dancing.  only can use her arms. "I can't see how this looks but it feels so nice."  I never thought to make her dance before. Now an idea.

10 minutes left:

Andy: Animated TV show. characters can't grow. Need to start the same each episode.
Nisi. Unintended resonances. Clarion West example. German surname guy was torturing kids in their basemt. Everyone assumed he was a Nazi.
Run it by people and get feedback, as diverse a set of eyes on it as posible. Different ROAARS from yours. Some that match those of your characters. Hear about your mistakes. Consulting people familiar with the culture.  That does not give you a seal of approval bythe culture. e.g. "Approved by Koreans."
One thing my Korean friend told me was that Korean women speak with their eyes. Widened, narrowed. Not so many smiles.
A Hindu can't explain Budhist.
Nisi: You should pay for expertise.
1) Acknowledge any help you get.
2) Ask what you can do in return

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