Emotionally Navigating Writing #OwnVoices Work (Part 1)

Promoting #ownvoices work while maintaining boundaries and comfort level

A reader asks:

There is a lot of interest in #ownvoices right now. How do I publicly navigate/discuss my own complex and evolving identities without feeling like I'm shilling my very soul to promote sales?

Oof, this is a tough one, Reader. I’ve felt this myself.

I want my work to stand on its own… but I also want people to recognize and respect when I’m writing with a personal connection. I like keeping a lot of my personal life private, including my identity struggles… yet sometimes I also feel the need to express those in fiction and want to talk publicly about how I do that. But I sometimes have complicated feelings about how much of my own experiences are represented, and whether something truly is #ownvoices for me… and then labeling it can also start to feel one-dimensionalizing, and, like you said, like I’m shilling part of my identity — a part that can have some complicated or painful feelings attached, or that I might not even have figured out myself.

I also don’t want to be branded as The Asian Writing Asian Stories or The Queer Writing Queer Stories — though I think it’s a perfectly fine choice for writers who do want to brand that way, it’s not what I want and I feel like I should have that choice, even if I occasionally write Asians or queer people as main characters. I want to be able to have the same flexibility to explore characters and storylines that majority people do.

Then there’s the entitlement the public can sometimes display. Readers and fans — at least a small segment of them — can sometimes feel an intense and inappropriate level of ownership over knowing a writer’s personal life. Then add another layer on top of this — well-meaning but sometimes overeager publishers and publicists, who may want to push that stuff front and center, sometimes even when the author wouldn’t feel it’s an appropriate claim. I’ve seen this happen, too. And of course nobody wants to say no because… we want our publishers to support our books, and we want our books to sell.

In writer spaces for underrepresented authors, I’ve been party to many conversations on all of this that have sucked up lots of time and energy and emotion from all of us.

It’s a work in progress for me, too, but as someone who has worked personal things out in fiction before — or without — ever talking about them publicly, or who has made different calls on just how front and center I want to put my identity in promotion, here are some techniques I use to navigate all that.

Talk About Your Personal Journey

This is if it’s something you’re comfortable talking about non-fictionally but are feeling that “soul selling” weirdness. I’ve found it extremely effective to narrow my focus to my personal history and my personal journey, without trying to claim I’m speaking for all nonwhite people, all queer people, etc.

People seem to respond well to this, and I feel way better about it, too, like I’m not grabbing for labels I might not have the right to in order to get people to buy my books. Instead, I’m simply speaking about what’s true to me. Also, then I can pick out the particular pieces of what I’ve written that are intensely personal and point to them, without feeling like I’m claiming to have written autobiography.

Happily, I actually find this is also one of the most effective ways talking about this stuff publicly (meaning, people really like reading it and sharing it). It’s a hard truth that talking about “diversity stuff” is popular and gets a lot of social sharing, and how to balance wanting to promote one’s work with just how much you want to go down the route of identity-as-a-brand can be a difficult and personal decision. But if that question feels at all complicated to you, if you aim for talking personally I’ve found it can help with all the different sides of that.

Talk Descriptively Instead of Categorically

Again, this is if you are comfortable talking about it and you’re trying to do so without feeling like you’re claiming things that aren’t actually right. There are lots of ways to talk about how personal a writing decision is for you without categorically claiming the label #ownvoices.

To be clear, I think it’s totally fine for people to label their work that way if they feel it fits! Please do, in fact. But Reader, it sounds to me like your question is aimed at how to talk about something that aligns with your experiences in some number of ways, but the #ownvoices label might feel too authoritatively definitive for what the story is to you.

When my work falls into that category, rather than calling it #ownvoices, I talk more descriptively. For instance:

  • “This is an intensely personal story”

  • “I pulled a lot from my personal history for this story / character / situation”

  • “This character / situation has a lot of roots in my own journey with XYZ”

  • “As a queer person, it was important to me to represent queer people among my main characters” (when, for instance, I want to show a siblinghood without claiming that the queer experiences I depict are necessarily similar to my own)

  • “There are some #ownvoices pieces of this” / “This is partly #ownvoices, in that…” / “The bits about XYZ are largely #ownvoices”

There are some of my pieces I’d straight-up describe as #ownvoices, but for the ones that fall into more complicated places, these sorts of descriptors feel better to me.

But what about if you’re not ready to talk about that aspect of your identity publicly? I’m going to split that off into a Part 2 for subscribers, because it gets a bit more personal (and because this is getting long for one post!). So stay tuned for Thursday, when we’ll be talking about this topic again.