13.32: How To Handle Weighty Topics

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Amal, and Maurice

How can we, as writers, best handle weighty matters? This is our year on character, so we’ll approach this with a focus on character creation, depiction, and dialog?

This topic is, in and of itself, weighty.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Write a scene in which a person who is part of a group you have written about about is reading what you wrote.

Voice of Martyrs, by Maurice Broaddus

25 thoughts on “13.32: How To Handle Weighty Topics”

  1. This is the best Writing Excuses episode I’ve listened to. Very important to today’s global cultural climate. Thank you!

  2. This was fantastic. Preach, Amal! Whenever that woman opens her mouth, I am putty in her hands.

  3. You should do a Writing Excuses on Betrayal or what tools we could use to create an unsuspecting backstab. Character motivation for betrayal has been tricky for me.

  4. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t take Amal seriously on this one. Anyone who uses the term “cultural appropriation” unironically in this day and age just comes across as clueless. What we used to call that is “culture,” and it’s exactly as simple as the concept she mocked as a “hot take:” everyone borrows from everyone.

    To take just one out of countless possible examples: these days, the steel guitar is generally associated with country music. But the steel guitar was invented by Joseph Kekulu, a Hawaiian musician, for Hawaiian music.

    Ripping it off? Hardly. The modern “honky-tonk” steel guitar mixes elements of the Hawaiian steel guitar with elements of the electric and resonator guitars. All three styles are variants on the acoustic guitar, which is Spanish in origin, and the Spanish guitar was a specific adaptation of the lute, which has been around in so many various cultures and civilizations, over a period of at least 5000 years, that it’s origins are lost to antiquity.

    Borrowing and adapting cultural ideas is how we get cultural progress, and if anyone tries to tell you that that’s a bad thing or make you feel guilty about it, ask them how they’d like it if the culture that originated the lute had been able to prevent the development of the guitar. And it goes in both directions; these days it’s quite common to hear Spanish music that uses electric guitars, “appropriating” an American innovation on the Spanish instrument and using it to create music that is uniquely Spanish in character.

    If there’s something wrong with that, at what point did it become wrong? And if not, then there’s nothing wrong with “cultural appropriation.”

    I’m sorry. I usually love Writing Excuses and have for years, but this was one of your extremely rare bad episodes, talking about not doing harm while promoting a concept that actively does harm.

    1. There’s a power dynamic specific to cultural appropriation that distinguishes it from mere cultural exchange. I think Amal’s point is spot on–no reason why we shouldn’t use elements from other cultures, or depict the “other”, but the key is to be aware and sensitive to the complexities of cultural identities. This is one of the best episodes of Writing Excuses I’ve listened to–I wish all of them were long enough to dive deeply into issues like this.

  5. There’s a power dynamic specific to cultural appropriation that distinguishes it from mere cultural exchange. I think Amal’s point is spot on–no reason why we shouldn’t use elements from other cultures, or depict the “other”, but the key is to be aware and sensitive to the complexities of cultural identities. This is one of the best episodes of Writing Excuses I’ve listened to–I wish all of them were long enough to dive deeply into issues like this.

  6. Thank you for this I really liked it. I am writing a novel with some heavy sections and I always worry that it’s too much/not enough, listening to people talk about it and understanding was really really helpful.

  7. The first 12 minutes of this episode are quite weak. Brandon was only asking questions, and everyone else was saying “When I write about my own group…”. I thought the episode was almost over, and was thinking “this was useless, I can’t apply a thing you are saying. Lets do a second episode from the standpoint of the folks who are not minorities”.

    And then Maurice started actually talking about how to write the other 12 or 13 minutes in, and the episode goes for 30, so the body of the episode is actually decent. But I’m a bit miffed at those first 10 minutes. Thank you Maurice for actually being helpful.

  8. I appreciated this episode. Maurice, I’ll give your book Buffalo Soldier a try. Sorry, but I did not care for your Brenton Court books.

    Mary, is this why Elma York is a nice Southern Girl? Because I love when she used her southerness as a thing. Plus the little bit of Yiddish with a southern accent was a funny moment in the audio book.

    I can understand why Brandon took a back seat in this episode, but I’d wish he had said something more than ask questions. His newest books have dealt well with several “weighty topics”. There’s even some debate going on among the fans on the Tor reread post this week. So I was hoping for some words of Brandon about his POV on handling the matters would have been nice.

  9. For those who disliked or didn’t appreciate the episode, I would be curious to hear more about why. I would also be interested to know how much “otherness” you have experienced in your own life. I’m not suggesting that there is a link; I would simply be interested in knowing more about both of those things.

    1. I was annoyed that the first 12 minutes (the majority of a normal-length episode) were spent with cast members talking about how a member of their minority writes about issues specific to their minority. It wasn’t useful, and it wasn’t even entertaining. I couldn’t apply any advice (other than “be careful”), I couldn’t see any illustrated points, and I couldn’t connect with any of the story element of what they were talking to.

      Then Maurice started talking about writing native american culture projected into the future, and the episode became good. There were stories I could connect to, points well illustrated, and advice I could apply in a non-passive way.

      I must admit that a large portion of my disappointment comes from the episode being different from what was advertised. I was hoping it would cover topics other than race. I disagreed with some of the philosophy behind it, but I expected that.

      My experience with the other is odd. I grew up in a very white town in the middle of no where. There was only one (adopted)African-American in my grade, plus a handful of Hispanics and Native Americans. I’ve lived in very homogeneous communities for the bulk of my adult life.

      I also have a Native American uncle, had room mates from Guyanna, Ghana, Tonga, and Mexico, and lived in Guyanna/Trinidad for two years, with a high degree of contact with the locals. My current employer is African American. So I’ve had a good deal of exposure to the other. Its just not the way most Americans have experienced it.

      I hope this aids your understanding.

    2. For those who disliked or didn’t appreciate the episode, I would be curious to hear more about why. I would also be interested to know how much “otherness” you have experienced in your own life.

      Quite a bit, actually. I was born into a family (well, my mom’s half of it at least) that was raised all throughout the world due to my grandfather’s work as an engineer, and inculcated with an appreciation for other cultures from the very beginning. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve had exposure to many different parts of culture throughout America and beyond it. I’ve lived fora few years elsewhere in the world, in a place where I was the “other,” both as a racial minority and as someone who didn’t speak the language natively or know the local culture. Before meeting the woman who eventually became my wife, I dated girls of just about every ethnicity around, trying to find someone who was a good fit.

      I think that’s a big part of why I was offended by this episode. They’re talking about a bunch of stuff I’ve seen, stuff I’ve lived, and saying that I need to not write about it because it’s not mine to write about. Well, screw that! You can’t own a concept or an idea; the very thought is offensive to me. on a very visceral level And besides, even if some topics are “sensitive,” if they’re reflective of problems in the world… how do you get from there to “you shouldn’t be talking about it”? How does that make any sense at all? You’re not going to fix a problem by not addressing it; that just leads to it festering and getting worse. (And hey, just look around. Try and tell me that’s not *exactly* what’s going on in America right now…)

      Yes, there are bad people going around spreading ugly ideas. But the proper response to bad speech is good speech. Trying to shut down discussion, or worse still to limit it to only one side of the issue having a voice on the subject, is categorically the wrong way to handle things, and tends to lead to much worse problems.

      1. What I took away from it was more “the farther from your own experience something is, the more you need to be careful when writing about it, the more you need to do your homework to make sure you’re doing the subject justice”.

        1. Perhaps you aren’t literally saying precisely that, but a whole lot of people *are*, and they’re using the Internet to magnify their voice to a truly frightening level and destroy people for things that were said innocently and never meant to cause any harm. And when powerful, influential people such as yourself say things like this, they will use it as encouragement even if that’s not the way you meant it.

          You say to be careful and be aware of power imbalance; I say yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing here.

          1. But… what you’re accusing W.E. of saying doesn’t seem to be what they’re saying.

            And your objection now doesn’t appear to be the objection you were voicing in the post that Mary responded to.

            If you’re upset about what other people are doing and saying in relation to these issues, and actually think that the problem is the W.E. crew encouraging that (which personally I don’t think they were really), then it would probably be more productive to have said that to begin with, and even more productive to have directed your objections directed at the people doing what you say you’re upset about.

            I haven’t read the book that Amal was angry about, so I really can’t say whether it had the problems she was describing.

            From my own stance (which I laid out earlier), I don’t agree with every last thing said in the episode, but IMO it’s important to disagree with what was actually said, not with what we’d like to argue with but maybe wasn’t said.

    3. My own experience of “otherness” has to do with internal things. I don’t think like most people seem to, I don’t experience the world the way most people describe experiencing it, I don’t want the things most people seem to want, etc. To me, almost all people are at least a little “alien”.

  10. This was an exceptionally well done episode. All the negative comments seem to be coming from annoyed bigots, tbh

    1. No, I’d say so far there have been good points back and forth about the thing. It’s very easy for people (in general) to be insensitive, careless, clumsy about each other’s cultures. A particular form of that can legitimately be called “cultural appropriation”, but that term needs to be applied carefully.

      Because if it’s not, it can become far too broad a brush, that includes cultures doing what cultures do, which is exchanging ideas and information wherever they “touch”. And part of that broad-brushing comes from a fundamental error of conflating culture and “race”, trying to wall off cultural elements as “OK” or “not OK” for someone to engage with based on where their ancestors lived 500 years ago, or the superficial color of their skin. As one example, I’ve seen someone refer to an American cooking Vietnamese dishes at home as “cultural appropriation”, insisting that only people of Vietnamese decent should ever cook those dishes.

      It’s a weighty topic, and at some point if we’re going to fix what’s wrong, we have to be able to actually talk about it without pointing fingers, making assumptions about anyone involved based on their gender or skin color or whatever, and without being terrified that we “have no standing” to discuss it.

  11. Brandon, Mary, Amal, Maurice — thank you for a thoughtful discussion of difficult topics, acknowledging the complex and multi-faceted nature thereof.

    1. And great point at the end, that a character who is a member of a group can just be a character who happens to be a member of that group. Just as they shouldn’t be depicted with dumb stereotypes or “markers”, they don’t always need to be stand-ins for all the experiences of that group.

      Maybe it’s naive of me, but I’d think that the ideal would be a world in which each character is just that character, and none of those things would be at all remarkable to anyone reading or watching the work. A character could have X skin color or Y physical gender or Z religious background, and it’s just part of that particular character, not something that needs to be considered in great detail, and not something that makes them a representative for an entire group.

  12. I wrote a carefully thought out response to this episode, but the internet seems to have eaten it. I’m not going to rewrite it.

    I’ll sum up my opinions as this: be careful, but not too careful. In other words, think about what you’re writing and what effect it will have, but don’t let your worry about potential offenses stop you from writing.

    I think the negative reactions are because it feels like we’re being told that we can’t write anyone other than ourselves. I’m going to tell you that you can write anyone you want as long as you have done your research. Part of that research is going to someone represented by your character and gauging their reaction. If it’s offensive or harmful, rewrite until it isn’t.

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