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Friday, February 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Writing the Other": Some exercises to help write through others' eyes

Special to The Seattle Times

"Writing the Other: A Practical Approach"
by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
Aqueduct Press, 112 pp., $9

This portable volume tackles a tough, politically sensitive question: How to write, and write well, about people who bear no resemblance to yourself? "Writing the Other" grew out of a writers' workshop attended by both authors. It builds on their subsequent experiences as teachers, and as prolific writers of fiction, science fiction and criticism.

Ward and Shawl (the latter also reviews books for The Seattle Times) begin by breaking down the ways we judge and label each other. They admit that it's a given that we all differ in some ways from the so-called norm: "However, our culture emphasizes certain kinds of differences. It tells us that these differences are the most important ones, the ones that truly divide us."

They've created a term that handily defines these differences: ROAARS, standing for Race/Orientation (as in, sexual)/Age/Ability/Religion/Sex. Just raising awareness about this writing challenge is a literary service; many a writer (journalists included) fears a misstep when depicting someone outside their own orbit.

The ROAARS term does have one failing: "Class" is intentionally left out of the acronym. The authors claim that while important and quantifiable, "on this continent it's not a difference majority culture recognizes as significant." It may be that the word "class" isn't invoked much anymore in North America, and admittedly it has less oomph here than, say, Great Britain, but insignificant it ain't. That said, the ROAARS device still serves the authors' purpose nicely, helping writers (and readers) to sort out ways in which one's own profile colors views of other people and situations.

"Writing the Other" is crafted around several exercises meant to challenge participants to step out of their own ROAARS shadow. A deceptively simple one instructs the writer to launch a four-minute writing blitz in which she describes herself with just one ROAARS change. (I couldn't resist knocking 20 years off my 48.) Another approach calls for randomly changing ROAARS characteristics of a character in an existing story and closely examining the result. Such exercises clearly help flex writerly muscles. They also make it harder to write — or accept others' writings — that clumsily perpetuate prejudices.

The tight format of this little book, part of an Aqueduct Press series called "Conversation Pieces," necessitates a clipped tone that tends to flatten some nice bits of irony and humor. A few portions cry out for more detailed consideration. Anytime a critic holds up racist depictions from long-lived novels (in this case, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind"), a discussion of the work's original context is called for — not as a means to justify using its racist rhetoric today, but as a way to understand how our standards have changed ... and not changed.

A book that intends to help a writer better capture the infinite varieties of humanity would be better served by a roomier treatment. Here's hoping the deserving authors have a chance to expand their editorial mission in a way that does it greater justice.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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