Friday, October 10, 2014

Writing in Someone Else's Shoes

We have all heard the advice: Write what you know. It’s not bad advice. When you write what you know, you rarely make mistakes. I don’t always heed advice, regardless how good it may seem. That can get me into trouble. Or it can take me to a place I’ve never been, into someone else’s shoes.

Writing from an experience that isn’t yours can be risky. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It does mean you should do everything to understand the situation of which you write. A few years ago I wrote a book titled NEXT TIME I’M GONNA DANCE about a breast cancer survivor facing a second diagnosis. Many of us have been touched in one way or another by this disease. I’ve had several friends diagnosed with breast cancer. But I’ve never been in their shoes, inside their skin to know what that is like. So why risk writing a book from that perspective? Because the story had to be told. And since the character of Emmie Steele came to me with this story, I had to be the one to tell it.

I don’t hold to the advice that we have to write only what we know. Writing outside that box stretches us, demands new learnings and a willingness to move beyond the boundaries of what is known. Research is essential. I consulted an oncologist and a homecare nurse. I read volumes on breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and survival rates. What I couldn’t learn from an article was how it felt to hear those words: You have breast cancer. I could only imagine how it felt to move through days and weeks and months of surgery, treatments with often horrific side effects, the fears, the hopes, and the regrets as one faced possible mortality.

I interviewed women who had been there. They were gracious and brave and open in sharing their stories with me. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, consult someone who does. Sadly, it was easy to find those someones. Only from those women could I glean a sense of the psychological, emotional, spiritual, as well as physical impact breast cancer has. I learned more than I wanted to know about this disease. I was so grateful for their willingness to share their experiences because I truly could not have imagined what they went through to come out the other side.

One of the things that struck me and that I did imagine would be true in this situation was that the women talked about facing their regrets—things done or not done or needing to be undone. And that became a primary theme for my telling of the story. NEXT TIME I’M GONNA DANCE was published in January, 2010. 

I was anxious as I hoped I’d done justice to the experience of breast cancer survivors. That was the greatest risk in writing in someone else’s shoes—to possibly water down their experience—to get it all wrong. One of the women I consulted wrote to me to say she had read the book and that she could not believe I was not a breast cancer survivor myself because I captured the experience, at least her experience, completely. I could never have done that alone.

My point of this blog is two-fold: (1) As writers, we sometimes have to take risks, dare to step outside the box of what is familiar, do the work to tell a story that is not ours, but that must be told. (2) October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. So I encourage you girlfriends to get a mammogram if you’re due for one. And I hope all of you will support breast cancer research and to be especially supportive of those in the trenches fighting this disease.  

Linda Rettstatt


Big Mike said...

I've stepped out of my skin twice and written as a woman (virtually the entire book.) No, it wasn't the desire to switch to the other side of life's equation, rather that the story, IMO, fit better from the heroine's perspective. First it was for RIGHTEOUS FURY (after a preamble chapter) and second in NEVER FORGOTTEN (part II of the Cherokee valley series) which doesn't come out until Jan. Easy? Heck no. What helped was working on collaborations for three books with female authors and we each got to better understand the different voices between a man's and woman's thoughts. Must not have done too bad given comments from female readers.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

It's a challenge to do this, Linda. Often writers are needed to articulate the thoughts and fears of others, to speak for the afflicted.

You did that beautifully in NEXT TIME I'M GONNA DANCE, as you did in LOVE SAM, my personal favorite.

Linda Rettstatt said...

Thanks, Mike and Julie.