Sunday, September 28, 2014

Write What You Know

I had some good advice swing my way when I was an up and coming undecided major in college. While maintaining my inability to chose a major I attended a meeting the English Department arranged featuring a successful magazine writer as the guest speaker. I am sorry to tell you I don't remember his name, but you have to give me a break, it was several years ago. He came in and informed us of how he reached his level of success and explained that there was no reason we could not accomplish the same.

At the time, I am afraid I was still more of a pessimist about my writing career, but did take a lot of his advice to heart. The most significant thing I learned from him was when he told me (and it seemed like he was speaking directly to me) "Write what you know." The words for me seemed to resonate around the room and echo in my mind still today.

Now for those of you who do not quite understand this phrase it means to simply write about what you have experienced or about characters you actually know. We all have thousands of experiences to chose from, even if it is just something on a television show or on a movie scene we have seen that made us feel a particular way.

My characters are always someone I know, or someone I have seen on television, or someone I ran into on the subway. I have to visually see this person in order to give them a believable essence. I have seen this person walk, talk, laugh, yell, and cry and that is what makes him come to life on my page.

It has been my experience that writers who chose to guess or write about things they know nothing about usually end of with a piece that is cold and uninviting. Why? Because they never truly experienced these emotions in some way themselves.

Now there are exceptions such as writing fantasy. You have never slayed a dragon or been bitten by a vampire (not yet anyway), but if you are like me we use emotions that we have experienced in our own life such as, fear, rejection, terror and joy, to name a few, to relate these emotions through our story.

I have written some of my best pieces from writing "What I know." I am not saying that great pieces can not be written by simply hearing about someone else's story, a story we did not experience, but I am saying we usually write most stories by pulling from our own experiences and emotions or by witnessing other people go through similar experiences and emotions. We do not pull these emotions and experiences out of thin air.

One story I had been told and did not actually experience was my story The Gift.  The story can be found in The Greensilk Journal, an online literary magazine. It is about a boy who is asked to leave his home and his family at the young age of 14 years old. His family is struggling at the time to make ends meet and his father has decided it is time for the boy to make it on his own. With The Gift I pulled from my own experiences of rejection, anger and fear to relate what I believe the character would have been experiencing during this traumatic experience. My characters in the story are all people I either know, or have seen on television, or have met on the street. It is one of my most treasured stories.

This is not the absolute right way to create the perfect story for every writer, but it does seem to work for me. When I was a beginning writer I tried to write about people I didn't know and circumstances I had no idea about and the stories tended to be colder and had no depth.  I am sure there of those of you out there who can accomplish this with no problem, but for me this system seems to work and I am a better writer for the advice.

Give me your thoughts. Is this all nonsense? Or do you tend to "Write What You Know."

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