That’s a long-winded way of saying that much of the first draft of my first novel, The Fall (the initial book of what would turn into a four-volume zombie series), was written at the local bar my friends and I frequented. This bar was located in a rather small, rural town in northern Connecticut, and the clientele (including my friends, and even myself) became the main characters for my story.
That first draft took me quite a long time to complete—nearly three full years—and by the time I typed out the last line, I began to doubt myself. Something was missing, but what? It was only when I shared the novel with members of my writer’s group that I realized the problem: With few exceptions, the story I’d written was populated by white, lower-middle-class characters. I might not have meant to create a work that told a tale of global destruction through a narrow scope, but that’s what ended up happening, nonetheless.
I was quite disappointed by this fact, since I like to consider myself progressive and forward-thinking. Plus, I’ve worked blue-collar jobs for most of my life, which meant my days were spent alongside people from all sorts of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The fact I’d overlooked the diversity that surrounded me every day was something that I felt needed to be corrected, and quickly.
While I wasn’t shy, quiet, or self-isolating, at the time I tended to interact with those outside my circle with a reserved, surface type of friendliness. That was the first thing that needed to change. I became more open, and even brazen, asking those around me from different backgrounds about their life experiences. Much to my surprise, the vast majority of those I spoke with in this manner themselves opened up, and in doing so, they helped me not only grow my craft, but grow as a person. There is no better way to deepen your empathy than to gain a kernel of understanding as to what it’s like to grow up in a way other than what you’ve experienced. The practice helped me form newfound, lasting friendships, as well.
Immediately, I began injecting these lessons into my writing, and I couldn’t have been happier with the results. Broadening my awareness had not only opened up my work to a wider audience, but had also changed the way I wrote. Instead of basing characters directly on people I knew (and potentially opening myself up to some tough conversations if the portrayal of said individual is less than ideal), I could grow them from the little seeds of knowledge I’d gotten my hands on, making each creation a completely original construct that I could use to tell so many different sides of the very same story, while at the same time allowing me to explore social issues I’ve cared about my whole life with a renewed sort of authenticity.
Each book I’ve written over that time has become more and more diverse, with me adding different character perspectives as I learn them. In that way, the growth of my craft has mirrored my personal growth. It’s gotten to the point where I now enjoy writing in other viewpoints far more than my own. To be able to create something wonderful or painful, exhilarating or tense, beautiful or ugly, and have it ring true to all the unique individuals who populate this world, is the true reward for any writer—or, more broadly, for any person. Diversity matters, connection matters, both in art and in life. We’d all be better served if we sought it out.
I know I have been.