There’s so much debate, hand-wringing, and general fuss about the phrase “own voices” that it’s easy to forget how simple and vital the central concept is. The phrase was coined by the writer Corinne Duyvis to refer to an author from a marginalised or underrepresented group, writing about their own experiences or from their own perspective.
This is a very natural thing for writers to do. We’re constantly being told to “write what you know”, and writers from a marginalised or underrepresented group have added motivation. We’re often virtually invisible in fiction. And if we’re not invisible, we’re stereotyped and misrepresented by authors who don’t share or understand our identities.
So why not tell our stories? Well, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy. My YA novel Other People’s Butterflies is own voices, because the main character is aromantic-asexual, and so am I. The process of writing and publishing it has been strange, emotional, awkward, and liberating.
I’d like to share my experience of writing an own voices story, and help other writers know what to expect if they decide to do the same. I’m aware that experiences can vary wildly, so if you’ve written own voices work and had a completely different experience, please feel free to share in the comments.
Step 1: Feeling very, very naked
Writing about your own experiences puts you in a vulnerable position. You can fictionalise all you like, but it’s still your own thoughts, feelings, and perhaps life events going onto the page. This can leave you feeling very exposed.
Here’s the part where someone tells me to stop being a pussy. Because this is what writers are supposed to do, right? We use our own experiences to create stories. But when writing own voices, you’re writing about experiences that most readers won’t have had. You’re risking judgement, mockery, or the reader saying “Eh, this isn’t relatable to me, so I’ll just read something else.”
You may also be writing about parts of yourself you’ve struggled to come to terms with (a common experience for queer writers) or experiences that made you feel shitty about yourself. It can be emotionally draining.
My advice to anyone struggling with this is to remember the following things:
- You are in control, and can share as much or as little of yourself as feels right. You owe your reader a good story and nothing else.
- You don’t have to write in a linear fashion. If you’re struggling with a particularly dark or difficult scene, write something for a happier part of the book and go back to the difficult scene later.
- Engage with your community. Remember that your experiences aren’t abnormal, and you aren’t alone.
Step 2: Under pressure
Writing an own voices story can be a high-pressure experience. Are you supposed to provide representation for everyone in your community? What if your representation is too simplistic? Or inadvertently promotes stereotypes? Or is just plain crappy?
My advice here is simple (some would say too simple): Reject that pressure. You can’t possibly represent everyone in a diverse community. Everyone wants a different type of representation – some want it to be wholesome and optimistic, others want it to be complex and challenging – and you can’t please them all.
Write your own story in your own style, and ignore the people who tell you it ought to be a different story in a different style. Personally, I’ve written about an aro-ace girl who makes mistakes, does bad things, and still ends up okay. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I also know that some people are looking for exactly that.
Step 3: Am I “own voices” enough?
Writers have a lot to worry about while crafting a story. Is it engaging enough? Believable enough? Funny enough? But if you’re writing own voices, you may also find yourself worrying if it’s authentic enough.
Other People’s Butterflies is a novel, not a memoir. My protagonist shares my sexual/romantic orientation, but our experiences differ in multiple ways. This is the case for most own voices authors, and it can cause anxiety when there’s so much pressure to write “lived experience”.
Also, identity can be really f*cking complicated. Just ask anyone who is mixed race, has an “invisible” disability, or is in the + part of LGBT+. This can cause confusion and worry about claiming your own identity.
My advice is to be honest with yourself. Do feel you can write authentically about this topic? If there are gaps in your knowledge or experience, can you find out what you need to know in a way that supports others and doesn’t exploit them?
Step 4: Potential bullshit from publishers, agents, etc.
Lots of publishers and agents are looking for own voices work. Some (including my publisher, Art Over Chaos) go about this in a responsible way, by advertising their desire for own voices stories and striving to create an inclusive environment. Others engage in identity policing.
Rather than trusting that a story is own voices if the author says it is, they will ask intrusive questions, pressure queer authors into outing themselves, and generally demand proof of identity.
I understand why publishers do this. There are, unfortunately, some shameless con artists out there, who will do things like pretend to be a different race in an attempt to get their writing published.
Nobody wants to be taken advantage of by unethical people, but identity policing disadvantages writers in difficult or dangerous situations who are unable to be completely open about their identity. You know who it doesn’t disadvantage? Con artists. They will always find a way around it.
If you’re not comfortable with identity policing, just try to avoid publishers who engage in it. Don’t answer questions that violate your privacy or dignity. Trust your instincts and prioritise your own safety, security and wellbeing.
Step 5: Celebrate!
Despite all the difficulties of creating an own voices work, rest assured that you are doing something worthwhile. You are creating something that will make people feel seen and understood. Be proud.
Thanks for reading this longer-than-usual post. If you have any experience of writing own voices stories (even if it’s something you’re just beginning to consider) I’d love to hear about it. And if you’re a reader, please share your favourite own voices books!