As a young writer I never fully understood the advice write what you know. Like a lot of others, I assumed it meant that I should write about only those activities I’d personally taken part in, and not about those I hadn’t. Not surprisingly, my early stories were filled with characters who had crappy jobs and went to a lot of parties, backpacked, fished and rode horses. (They still do have characters who ride horses.)
But what, I wondered, about the writer who wanted to write about characters having sword fights, dying of plague, or being sold into slavery? Or hey, how about walking on the moon?
Happily, ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really mean that we should only write about being an astronaut if we’ve actually been one. All these can be written about by doing research, and then using that most magical of human abilities: imagination. The admonishment to write about what you know means something much deeper—and much more profound and beautiful.
I’ve read that there are actually a limited number of human emotions.
(Probably some others I haven’t thought of here.)
Emotions can be felt in combination, which colors them and makes them feel exponentially better, or worse, or simply different slightly in nature. For instance: writers probably all experience moments when we read something really wonderful that we wish we’d written (joy at the beauty/ love for the writer or words or both/ coupled with wistful envy), or we see another writer we like achieve some recognition we long for (excitement for them/love/joy/envy).
For certain envy can become so intense it can be toxic—and then it turns to something darker, doesn’t it? Something more akin to jealousy?
The flip side (or perhaps the other end of the spectrum) of that would be pride, which can be obnoxious, when it becomes the bloated, preening sort. We’ve all seen it in its worst manifestations, and felt it too, if we are honest. That kind of pride is noticeably different in flavor than, say, the pride of a loving parent watching a child achieve a worked for goal, or the happy sigh of accomplishment when we sit back and admire a job well done.
Emotions run along a spectrum, and can be colored, or nuanced, by the proximity of other emotions, making them very complex. Yet, we all feel them, and experience the same ones. Barring disability, there are no emotions another can feel that you cannot.
As children we begin to experience the range of human emotion. First in our family, and then in the larger world as we venture forth. We gradually experience all the emotions and their many permutations. At some point, we examine them. We question what might be the cause of them, and maybe even learn some level of mastery.
This sort of self-examination and honesty is crucial to writers because, if we understand human feelings and emotions, and the many motivations that are at the root of them, then we can imbue our characters with all these, and they become real people, recognizable in all their failings, faults and foibles. And in their moments of nobility and glory.
Translating emotion onto the page is our job as a writer, whether it be through the character’s actions and choices, dialogue, or through believable internalizations.
If we haven’t felt an emotion and honestly examined it, no amount of research will help us write about it in a recognizable way. Likewise, if we are afraid of being seen, if we prefer to keep our selves locked away and not let others truly know us, then we won’t like the exposure of writing.
Writing honestly is a bit like taking your clothes off in a room full of strangers.
Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked, wrote:
“The best writers are those who are courageous enough to go deep inside themselves to face and expose the warts and hidden desires and forbidden feelings most of us want to hide from or deny, at least to others. Not everyone is able to face his demons and bring them out into the light of day, but if you have a fear, a forbidden thought or yearning, or an experience that has scarred or deeply affected you, then you have the material of great literature”…
He also said:
“Emotion is the chief coin in the trade of writers.”
I think this kind of honesty is what drew me to reading as a child; the feeling that I could know so many more and varied people than those of my small acquaintance—even those long dead! It was that sense that, reading Dickens, for instance, showed me not only the characters he chose to write about, but that beneath them I could see something of him: What he thought about people, and life, and what he thought of me, the reader; his expectations and assumptions of me revealed so much about himself.
Some argue that, like Hemingway, we should attempt to strip away any of our selves that might glimmer through in our writing. That is both impossible (even Hemingway couldn’t do it), and entirely unnecessary. Even with a stripped down story such as Hills Like White Elephants, the author is there beneath the writing, his thoughts about folks shimmering and flashing beneath the surface like koi in a pond. It’s inescapable for a brilliant writer to write and not show his/her self. Only the rankest, unskilled amateur can do that, because their writing is devoid of human experience. When we don’t know what we are doing we don’t bleed onto the page. (Early drafts are often like this too, I’ve discovered, when we are trying to figure out the story, and what is at stake. We may know perfectly well what our character is feeling, but not be getting it onto the page, and that’s okay; that’s what rewrites are for!)
The way I see it our personal understanding of self and others then, is really what is meant by “write what you know”. Because no matter whether our characters are astronauts, nurses, politicians or warlocks, if their feelings, motivations, and the actions that follow are genuine and recognizable, we’ve succeeded in our endeavor to portray real character.
And it’s all achieved by being brave and honest, and writing what we know, which is: what it’s like to be human.