What does it mean to “write what you know?”
Over at Kristen Lamb’s Blog, she made a very heart-wrenching post about writing what you know: “Write What You Know” and What That Means.
Writing what you know doesn’t mean writing about knitting or golf or how much the pick up line at your school sucks. Sure you might work that into your plot but if your entire novel is about that no one’s going to read it.
Writing what you know is writing about emotional experiences you’ve had, digging deep, extending them out into character to create living, breathing people the reader can relate to. You know, while they knit or golf or bitch about their school insane safety procedures.
She told the story of how her father died in 1999. On his birthday while she was planning his party. Heartbreaking. But those are emotions that she knows, that she can funnel into a character.
Her story reminded me of my own family tragedy that happened just a year after hers. Except in my case it was my mom. In August 2000, my mom, who was 51 at the time, went into the hospital to clear an artery in her neck that had caused 2 mini strokes over the previous five or so years. It was explained as fairly routine and she’d be out of the hospital in a few days.
I woke late that morning to find them already walking out the door because her surgery time had been moved up. I let her hold my newborn baby because my mom just adored her and then I told her I’d see her later because I didn’t plan to go to the hospital until the next day whens he was fully out of recovery.
Those were the last words I ever said to her, the last time I saw her alive. Two days later she was declared brain dead, the result of a massive stroke on the operating table and then another that night.
Devastation is an emotion I’m familiar with. But when I think back I never really deal with many of the emotions like I should have. I kind of skipped right to acceptance because I didn’t have time to go through the other stages. I had a new baby to take care of, a husband looking for a job, my dad and brother who were a mess, my mom’s two cats who were also lost and confused and needy, relatives stopping by, people asking about how my dad was, keeping the house clean and cooking for everyone. I was suddenly the mom of the house and there was no time to grieve. People needed taking care of.
I guess I kind of resent that. And I still really haven’t dealt with all the emotions from that time. Eventually they spurt to the surface usually in a huge blow up… a volcano of pain and grief that just can’t be contained.
Last time was on Thanksgiving a few years ago, which happened to fall on Mom’s birthday. I wanted everything perfect, just like I remembered it when she cooked. But everything was going wrong and it hit me all of a sudden that she was gone (nine years by then) and nothing was ever going to be right again. I just walked out of the kitchen, curled into bed and cried myself to sleep–everything left cooking on the stove. I woke to find my husband and dad finishing stuff up but I couldn’t eat that night.
Thinking back to what Kristen wrote about tapping into those emotions made me realize I need to be more honest when I write. I can’t hold those feelings back if I want my characters to feel real. But it’s a hard process. It’s gruesome therapy that is scary and uncomfortable and painful. But it needs to be done if I want to write what I know. I know about pain–deep, soul-crushing emotional pain. That’s what I should be writing about.
Has anyone else figured out how to tap into those emotions without having a complete mental breakdown themselves? I’d love to hear about how you use personal experiences to shape your stories or characters.