02/02/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Ostracism: Why It Produces Unique Voices That Can't Be Copied

One of my favorite writers grew up in the same part of the country I did. The intolerance he suffered was due to the Bible Belt's perception of his gay status, while mine was due to ethnicity. Due to the glowing critical reviews his work receives and the high sales of his books, he now operates in the ether of fame and fortune most writers never reach. Recently, I met a well-educated writer from a privileged upbringing who was frustrated that she could not write as well as him, even after studying his work intensely. I thought it was arrogant and naïve for her to think she could duplicate his style. His experiences of extreme ostracism as a young adult provide an authenticity to his voice she doesn't have. I can't presume to write from the perspective of a Vietnamese refugee or a stay-at-home mother who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage due to economic reasons. Those aren't my experiences, so I know I can't write about them well. Great writers depict their unique quest for dignity with a freshness and accuracy that reverberates with their readers, especially those with similar experiences.

One such writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote about the thin veneer of his jet-set lifestyle, precariously propped up by wealth. His characters' rejections and insecurities despite their apparent affluence were direct parallels to Fitzgerald's own life. As he descended into the alcoholic abyss, consumed by his love for the mentally ill Zelda, Fitzgerald produced characters whose emotions and self-destructive actions rang with the purity of his personal pain.

Virginia Woolf's ongoing battle with depression, as well as the death of her mother and father, provided piercing narratives born of her view of the world through a lens of gloom and desperation to which many readers could relate. Being female in a patriarchal society at a time when subservience in women was expected, Virginia Woolf fought back against this status quo with one of the few tools available to her, her writing. Her works' highly charged characters clearly illustrate the disenfranchisement she experienced at the hands of men in broader society.

More recently, the great novelist, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide after many years battling depression and struggling with drugs to effectively treat it. The characters in Wallace's works, who experience great ironies in their lives and suffer from extreme disillusionment, reflect the author's isolation despite his literary success.

I once had lunch with a poetry teacher who warned her students not to submit another piece of poetry describing pretty flowers or gardens. The problem was that she was expecting depth from her students, many of whom had not really lived life; they had come from homes with maids and trust funds, and their families had never experienced hunger or stress over how the cable or electric bill was going to be paid. These kids' parents set societal norms. They didn't ever have to exert energy or planning to procure the basic necessities of life.

When people are on the outside looking in, they see things about the broader culture it cannot see about itself. If you are part of the "in crowd" where you are respected and accepted, your writing will not reflect the observance of wrongs that a writer who has experienced exclusion and poverty can. Overcoming struggle has its own beauty, and it's not something that can be faked by someone writing prose from second-hand experience. The best thing to do is to live an interesting life. Then the material you write might do more than hold someone's interest -- it might inspire them.