Write what you know

In what seems like centuries ago, I was part of a writing critique group. We were all tyros, though we imagined we were just one short story away from being published and respected writers. I look back on those days and cringe at how innocent we all were, myself perhaps the most starry-eyed of the bunch.

We knew all of the buzzwords and terms, and we threw them about freely as we critiqued each other’s short stories. Our writing needed to “show, not tell.” Our characters needed to be more “round” and less “flat.” Were our narrators third-person omniscient? Were they trustworthy? We needed stronger verbs and fewer adverbs. More adjectives. Fewer adjectives. And so on.

One phrase that I don’t remember hearing in those days was “write what you know.” I suspect we believed that there was no subject or insight that was beyond our creative minds and that whatever observations we brought to bear on our subject matter were profound and necessary for a waiting readership we were sure to have.

What brings all of this to mind was a short story one of the writers in our group brought for discussion. It was a story about the death of a friend, which I understand is the story every beginning writer needs to get out of his or her system as soon as possible. The writer of this story chose to present it mostly as an internal monologue as the protagonist grappled with the death of his friend.

I don’t remember the specifics of the story except that I thought it was bloodless. It didn’t seem to stand as a surrogate for real life (which is one way to appreciate fiction). During our discussion of the story, the writer said that she had looked up the five classic stages of grief and then put her character through them in proper order. Had I known the phrase “write what you know” then, I might have stated as much because I really didn’t like this revelation about her story.

She wasn’t writing what she knew. She confessed that she hadn’t experienced the death of a friend, so she didn’t have that kind of personal resource to call upon. Instead, she looked up the supposed facts of the matter and crafted a story around them. This seemed profoundly wrong to me. I did have a friend who had died about ten years before when we were both teenagers. While it is possible, psychologically, that I did go through the classic five stages of grief about this death and simply didn’t recognize them, I remember objecting viscerally to the idea that my grief (or my lack of it, actually) had to pass through some universal pattern. It certainly didn’t seem as though it had, and had I written what I knew about the experience, it would not have touched on those five stages.

The writer’s story seemed like an exercise in arrogance — not about death and grief but about writing. It seemed as though she was saying that no topic was beyond the skill of a good writer and that if she wasn’t personally experienced in whatever, well, she could just do a little research and turn out a definitive fictional account of it in short order. I don’t honestly think she was asserting this. She didn’t even claim to be a writer at the time. She was only coming to the group as a favor to her brother who ran things, as a way to swell our ranks a bit. I don’t even remember her name, so if she’s gone on to become a widely published and respected author, I can’t tell you about it. I do know she was fluent in Polish, which is more of an accomplishment than I can claim.

My reaction to her story-crafting approach was strong, and it stays with me today. As a consequence of her story, I did write (and rewrite, and rewrite) the story of my friend’s death. I remember thinking that my experience of it — my reaction to it — was just as valid as any other person’s and that if the stages of grief I passed through were different, then those objective five stages were just a generalization of human experience, not a law.

My story dealt with what was, to me, an astonishing lack of grief about my best friend’s death. It was a long, lingering, and in the end very painful death by cancer. We all knew it was coming, but the vigor of youth was in me, and the wide world of adulthood was just beyond the threshold. In retrospect, I felt that I had abandoned my friend to his death, and in the story I wrote about it, my protagonist imagines his friend’s ghost coming back to pass judgment.

I think it is a good story because it is a true story. I really did write what I knew, and I pull it out of the archives once a year or so to re-read it. I suppose it’s true that young writers must get this story out of their system (also their first love story), and I’ve stopped trying to get it published, but it has been a valuable story for me because it has helped me understand my craft.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humble efforts, Rants and ruminations, short stories

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One Comment on “Write what you know”

  1. I am a country doc and bluegrass mandolinist. It is all I know, and all I can write about.

    I call my genre modern medical grit lit. At least I am unique.

    Dr. Tom Bibey


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