Revised thinking on how to “Write what you know.”

Just a word on the story I found myself writing earlier this week after two long-lost ideas found themselves married together for the first time. I mentioned this was a father/daughter story, a new relationship dynamic to me (though now that I think of it, the father/daughter relationship in a series of short stories I’m working on is an important one, even if the stories come from a young boy’s point of view). Again, I’ve never been a daughter or a father, but writing about this relationship, this human experience, felt natural to me.

It felt natural because I’ve known a few fathers in my day, as well as daughters. I’ve witnessed a variety of relationships, and understand no one is defined by simple terms like “father” or “daughter” or “mail man” or “rancher” or “little brother” or “president.” People are more complex than labels, and so are relationships. Bringing this to the table, I’m able to give these two characters an honest shake at showing me what their relationship is like.

What “Write what you know.” really means…

Jerome Stern took a fresh look at the “Write what you know…” bit of advice so many writers receive in his Making Shapely Fiction. He says, “Fiction based not on your own experience, but on experience you’ve observed is also writing about what you know. You know by empathy. You know by living.” He’s talking about knowing people. If I only wrote about “what I know” in terms of “me,” I’d write a lot about English majors with a penchant for G.I. Joe and Monty Python. While I might find those stories to be interesting, I’m sure the appeal of writing them over and over would loose their luster fairly fast. (Of course, what percentage of Stephen King’s stories are about writers, but I digress…) I’ve plugged Stern’s book before, and this week has seen some connecting-the-dots on my part that makes me want to plug it again; Making Shapely Fiction is worth your time and money.

Stern also quotes Henry James, and I’ll do likewise: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” This means observe the world around you, soaking in the details and letting them bounce around in your brain like an inflatable bouncy castle with unlimited capacity. That’s how all of those observations get together to create solid ideas. We wouldn’t have The Big Lebowski if the Coen brothers hadn’t observed their friend, Jeff Dowd, enough to create The Dude and throw him into a film noir. We wouldn’t have Rushmore if Wes Anderson didn’t have such a detailed memory of his former prep school, the setting being a completely fleshed-out character in the film. We wouldn’t have The Things They Carried if Tim O’Brien hadn’t taken in so much of his Vietnam combat tour with his keenly observational eye.

I pulled out the father/daughter story again today and did some more writing; it’s an interesting thing, exploring this relationship. I’ll keep you posted, if it continues to hold my interest. In the meantime, ask yourself (or answer in comments) just who, what, and where are you observing so you can “write what you know”?

-nm

[tags]write what you know, writing about human experience, character relationships, Henry James, Big Lebowski, Jerome Stern[/tags]

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