Reflections on writing #ownvoices books

Mirror.I got into writing via Dungeons and Dragons; when my friend’s dad (our Dungeon Master) commented on my unusual multi-class character, I decided I wanted to know what led her to be the adventurer that she was. So I started writing her story.

My early books were all speculative works, even as my reading habits in the last several years have expanded to include a lot more contemporary novels. I always considered myself a writer of sci-fi and fantasy. Until one day a book demanded to be written that was basically a thriller with light sci-fi elements.

And then November happened. Seeing a rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric exacerbated the feelings of “other”ness I’ve had since moving to central Indiana, working in the town that is the birth place of the Church of God. Suddenly, I wanted to tell the story of someone like me, a Jewish girl thrust into the Bible belt after growing up in a town with many more faiths represented.

The main character of that book is not me, but she shares a lot more with me than other characters I’ve written. I’ve never written someone whose views on and practice of Judaism so closely matched my own. Heck, I’d only ever written one Jewish character before, and she was a minor character who only appeared in one scene. Writing this character gave me a space to explore my relationship with my faith (I identify as an Agnostic Jew — culturally Jewish but religiously out on the whole God question) and the role it played in my relationships with family members. Like me, the main character has a Jewish mother and a Catholic father; though unlike me, she had no older sibling to emulate or younger sibling to educate (as best as any kid can answer any other kid’s questions about religion). Writing that book left me with different views on what it means to be a Jewish woman in a Christian town, and a stronger relationship to my culture.

Since I was on a contemporary kick, and I had another idea for a Jewish character with a passion for music, I started another #ownvoices book while querying my first contemporary. This character is #ownvoices not because of her faith (she’s Jewish, but that’s not central to the plot) but because of her struggles with anxiety. Writing the first draft of this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because pushing this character through anxiety attacks forced me to re-live my own. I wrote the lowest points of my life into her. But I also gave her a loving family like mine, and friends who helped her pull herself out of those low points. As I struggled alongside her, though, I gained a new perspective on my own mental health. While I’m quick to tell others that mental illness is not a weakness, I often see my own anxiety as a fault. Writing a character with anxiety made me re-evaluate that assessment, as I see how strong this girl really is in facing challenges head-on. Again, she isn’t me, but she shares more with me than past characters I’ve written.

The thing I love most about writing is seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. I love telling others’ stories, even — especially — when they make decisions I might not make, or are in situations I would never find myself in. But there’s something to be said for giving characters bigger pieces of myself, and coming to terms with those pieces of me alongside them.

Have you written an #ownvoices story? What was your experience?


2 thoughts on “Reflections on writing #ownvoices books

  1. rbrothers

    With one exception, all of my books are #ownvoices stories to some extent — they’ve been a helpful lens through which to examine my own cultural and religious history, my mental health, my past unkindnesses, and so forth. Like your experience with writing anxiety attacks, writing these characters can be super uncomfortable and disquieting and messy, but I can feel myself growing and learning with the characters as they face their fictional difficulties. My books will probably never see the light of day, but at the very least, they’ve been excellent therapy. 🙂

    1. Liz Osisek Post author

      I’m glad you’ve found growth and comfort in your writing! Those explorations aren’t always easy, but I think they’re worth it in the end.


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