On Writing What You Know

On Writing What You Know

When I was eighteen, I was freshly graduated from high school and ready to move out of my parents’ house for what I thought was forever.  I smoked cigarettes and drank on the weekends and played guitar and sang in a band.  For the longest time, I hated the kid that I used to be.  It wasn’t the exuding of angst or pseudo-machismo (which was carefully counterbalanced with girls’ jeans and eyeliner), it was the total lack of authenticity I did it with.

For example, our best song was a repetitive ode to struggling relationships and mental illness.  The chorus was the oh-so-inspired “And I can feel the onset/of an unlucky breakdown/ it’s not something that I dread/ it happens; hospital bound.”  This was at a time where the closest to a breakdown I had ever been was being curt to customers at the pizza joint I worked at, and the nearest to a mental hospital I had been was driving past one once.

There was a peppering of other lines that I didn’t really understand, “I’m talking to myself again” and “this life that’s gotten out of hand” and “on the telephone calling for help/ cuz I can’t do this by myself.”  This was all an attempt at being something I was not.  This was all an attempt at being Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes.

Six months later, and due to a mix of nefarious activities, I finally ended up having that unlucky breakdown.  I started talking to myself by way of doubt and shame manifesting as voices, and called more people to talk me down from crippling depression than I have made phone calls since.  I came out of it with a diagnosis for Cyclothymia (think Bipolarism) and a lot more to write terrible songs about.

Oddly enough, I was never in quite the same emotional place while writing those songs.  The subject matter toned down a lot, centering around unrequited love or drinking too much, things that I fully understood but had no passion about.  I was living these things.  I didn’t need to turn them into music.

Several years in the future, in a fiction writing class, there was a discussion of the often used phrase “write what you know.”  Someone in the class said something along the lines of “Of course you should write what you know.  I’m a nineteen year old girl.  I can’t write about being a fifty year old man who is afraid of retiring or whatever.” The conversation then turned, as it tends to do in creative writing classes, to the idea that writing what you know isn’t about experience.  It’s about writing the emotions you know as an emphatic writer, knowing that your character is experiencing fear or love or anger or whatever.  Things that you understand can translate universally.

But this is a boring answer.  Yes, universally acknowledgeable emotions make for broad connections not only with characters but directly with the audience as well.  But the idea that this is somehow “writing what you know” is a waste of time.  We all write the emotions we understand.  We all portray the way we feel through words, because that is what we can do.  It is the way to most effectively express one’s self, and it is as far from what writing should be as you can get.

Writing what you know, writing what you understand and can tolerate and relate to is boring.  It’s the things that we don’t know, the things that we don’t understand, the things that we fear that can drag a story out from us in the most effective way.  Sometimes, when reading a love story, knowing that this is what the author wishes they knew is far more impactful.

There can be doubt in prose.  There can be a direct understanding between the writer and the reader that they are going to go on an adventure of exploring, dissecting, pretending, and faking their way through a battery of situations and ideas that are foreign to one or both parties.  It is ok for an author to say “I do not understand this thing, and that is why I want to talk about it.

Write what you don’t know.  Write what you can’t possibly understand and hope that it takes you somewhere.  Eschew the lazy idea that your emotions translate universally, and find something that you have to work to convey, and know that your audience is smart enough to put in the work to understand where you are coming from.  It’s ok to be afraid when writing.  It’s ok to take ideas about what could possibly happen, what you could possibly feel, and put them on paper.  It’s ok to make mistakes, offend people, to be wrong.

Six years after writing and performing that song, I still listen to it from time to time.  There’s something to the words that I still don’t quite get. Something that rests below the surface- something that comes from the moments between the words, between the notes.  There’s something about watching that kid say things he doesn’t know will come true with time.  And there’s something about the way I feel when I listen to it that makes me think that I won’t ever understand.  That even after I lived and continue to live with all of the problems that I sang about, I’ll never really know what I was writing about.

I like not understanding.  I like the things that hide in the shadows as much as those that people can shed light on.

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