I think that most people who write have heard this before: Write what you know.
It’s simple advice, to the point. I even think it’s pretty easy to follow. But what exactly does it mean?
Fiction is not a true story. It’s not a memoir. It’s not non-fiction. It’s not a biography or a history. At its core, it’s a made-up story. And a made-up story isn’t something anyone could possibly know, is it?
I think a lot of us fall into the trap of thinking that a story has to be rooted in our own reality if we’re going to ‘write what we know.’ But if everyone did that, how could we have science-fiction, fantasy, magical realism — all these wonderful and imaginative stories that couldn’t possibly ever happen in our lives?
Just because it hasn’t happened in this reality or to you specifically doesn’t mean that it’s something you don’t know.
All good fiction tells the truth. It tells the truth based on what the writer knows to be true. It tells the truth based on what the writer knows. Think about it. What do you know about life? You know your own experiences, of course. But you also know emotions, how it feels to be in love, to get frustrated, to be really, really mad at someone. You listen to your family and friends tell stories. You’ve taken a vacation. You’ve probably even sat sometime in a coffee shop and watched and listened to the people at the table next to you talk about something that happened to them.
These are all the things that make up ‘write what you know.’ Just because it didn’t actually happen to you doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Just because you didn’t get mad at the same thing your character is mad about doesn’t mean you don’t know how to be mad or what happens when you’re mad. Just because you never went on a road trip doesn’t mean you can’t write a story about one.
One of the best parts of writing, for me, is re-imagining what I already know or think I know and turning it into something else entirely.
That, right there, is what writing fiction is all about.
I wish I could finish this novel.
I wish I wanted to start something new.
I wish I didn’t have so many ideas that will never be written.
I wish I didn’t get jealous easily.
I wish I was published.
I wish I didn’t love to write so much.
I wish I felt motivated to write.
I wish I didn’t get discouraged every time I read a new book.
I wish I was hopeful and optimistic again.
I wish I felt like I was good at this.
I wish I could get out of this slump.
I wish I didn’t have to write this list at all.
I’m a fan of great quotes. I like to carry them around with me. Most of these quotes I get from the books I read and I write them down into a little black book. Some of these I return to and some just fill the pages. There are a few I’ve collected over the years that have stuck with me. Obviously, John Gardner’s stayed with me, and I thought I’d share a few others here and there.
I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I guess maybe I think that the more I read about it, the better I’ll be as a writer. There are a lot of ways to be a better writer, and there are a lot of things writers do that other people might think are weird or different.
And here is a perfect quote by Sara Lewis, from her Second Draft of my Life:
When I was a writer, I had to explain over and over again that my fiction was not based on my life. People never believed me. No one ever asked if my life was based on my fiction.
– Sara Lewis, Second Draft of My Life
I think most people tend to believe that fiction is based on the life or experiences of its writer. I know that I put a lot of myself into my stories. Sometimes it’s an experience, sometimes it’s a thought, sometimes it’s an emotion. It’s not always fact, though. I don’t write non-fiction. I don’t even take liberties and write creative non-fiction. I took one creative non-fiction in college and just wasn’t very good at it. I prefer my stories made up, so that’s what I do.
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In undergrad, we had two writing professors, one for poetry and one for fiction. Since at the time poetry intimidated the heck out of me (more on that in a future post, I’m sure), my college writing career was “managed” by one professor. This professor happened to be a really big fan of John Gardner, who has written several books on writing. I didn’t care much for Gardner then (though it struck me this morning that it might be past time that I re-read his books on writing and see how I feel now, years later), but one quote of his that stuck with me regardless is this one:
The writer who cannot distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.
– John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Is it really that easy to mix up truth and a peanut-butter sandwich? Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is that if a writer doesn’t know the truth, doesn’t know truth, and doesn’t use truth spread out (like peanut-butter!) all over her work, then the writer simply can’t write good fiction. Truth must be present in fiction.
But, you argue, fiction isn’t the truth! Fiction never happened! That’s why it’s called fiction and not non-fiction. It’s not reality. It isn’t a memoir or a biography or a historical account of things that actually transpired. Why are you bringing up truth at all? Fiction does not equal truth.
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