In my church, instead of the same person preaching every week, members of the congregation take turns preparing and giving talks. Yesterday, one speaker was giving a talk about commitment and told this story:
There was a man who was the only Protestant in a large Catholic neighborhood. Every Friday during Lent, while his neighbors were eating their cold fish, he'd grill a steak in his backyard. The neighbors couldn't stand the temptation, so they decided to try to convert him. He agreed. The priest sprinkled water on him and said, "You were born a Baptist. You were raised a Baptist. Now you're a Catholic."
The next Lent, on the first Friday, the neighbors smelled steak coming from the man's backyard. They ran over to see what was going on, and sure enough, he was grilling a steak. The man looked at them, sprinkled some water on the steak, and said, "You were born a cow. You were raised a cow. Now you're a fish."
I felt kind of bad for laughing, but . . .
(If none of this makes sense to you, there's a practice among Catholics of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. I guess fish doesn't count as meat?)
My sister-in-law was raised Catholic, and my oldest siblings and I had lots of Catholic classmates when our family lived in Iowa, so I knew exactly whom I was going to share this story with after church. When I did, my sister-in-law sent this reply:
"['T' and I] made that mistake in our neighborhood too. Grilling burgers on a Friday night in March, we got the worst glares. The next day they asked me if we were Catholic. 😂
"But I must admit I still love fish Fridays! My great-grandma did it year-round." 🐟
Sometimes as writers, we make the mistake of treating our literary worlds as if they're homogenous. This can happen in both fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, it often takes the form of everyone from a certain group having the same opinions, cultural memories, and even personalities. In nonfiction, it typically happens by leaving out alternate viewpoints. (When I student-taught AP World History, my cooperating teacher would have the students read something and then would ask, "What voices are missing? Whose perspectives would you like to hear that aren't in there?")
Essentially, by doing these things, we're taking shortcuts in our writing. And to borrow my absolute favorite quote from American literature:
"Like most shortcuts, it was an ill-chosen route."
-Washington Irving, "The Devil and Tom Walker"
Of course, we can't represent or include every perspective or culture in our work. That would take up way too much space and distract from the plots/arguments we're writing. But in fiction, we should make sure our characters' choices, opinions, and personalities aren't determined solely by their cultures. (My sister-in-law is no longer Catholic, for example, but she still loves fish Fridays.) In nonfiction, we need to at least acknowledge opposing viewpoints and the perspectives of people who usually don't get a voice.
In fact, these practices often force us to refine our characters and plots or strengthen our arguments, which improves our writing overall. That's ultimately what we're going for.
P.S. Over the weekend, I discovered a bunch of posts that were missing from my blog and added them. Check out the archives here!
(Thanks to Gregor Moser for sharing their work on Unsplash.)