I have been so afraid the past twenty-four hours about what might pop up in my various social media feeds, especially on Facebook. I have been afraid of seeing my friends and family affirm attitudes that display ignorance and judgment about a complex disease. (My disease, in case you were wondering, gifted to me from both sides of my family, and perhaps some suffocating life circumstances as well).
Sure enough, I’ve heard about the ignorance and judgment coming from people who have clearly never wrestled with depression. How do I know these people don’t struggle with depression? Because they’re sitting there at their keyboards, spewing ideas at the world at a breakneck speed of 70 WPM, without any consideration of the people who will be reading them. They’ve shown up with bells on to tell those of us who do wrestle with this disease how we should handle it. Unfortunately, they’ve broken the cardinal rule of writing (and really, relating to people): write (or talk about) what you know.
I was going to write about this anyhow, before I heard anything about Robin Williams. You see, last week, I read a book and there really wasn’t anything wrong with the writing/story itself, but it dealt with depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. These are issues in which I have personal experience, and I was disturbed to see them represented and resolved the way they were – vastly oversimplified. The whole book gave me the impression that the author had done her research on these things, but had no experience in them.
This isn’t to say a writer must always write versions of themselves and their life stories. (That’s just narcissistic). There are just certain things one can’t write or speak about, because they don’t know them. If you want to write or speak about something you don’t know from experience (say historical fiction), you must at least do so with empathy, that gift to see through the eyes of others. Don’t attempt it through your own eyes: that only comes across as insincere and serves to drive people away.
This is what I have had to remind myself, both last week and today: some people just don’t know. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from writing or speaking, because not only do they not know, they don’t know that they don’t know. (Confused yet?)
I’m currently writing my own book about what I know – not just about depression, but about abuse, anger, dark nights of the soul, sexuality, and a host of other things that I have lived – so I’m not going to hash out what I know here. Besides, you can read wise and healthy perspectives by Ann Voskamp, Nish Weiseth, and Megan Tietz, and whether depression is something you know from experience or not, I highly recommend you do.
I just want to admonish people everywhere: write and talk about what you know. If you don’t know about it, please just sit down and be quiet.