What you don’t know won’t kill you

We’ve all heard the cliché “Write what you know.” Perhaps it’s a useful instruction to beginning writers so they don’t get distracted while learning the basics of craft. Beyond that, it seems silly.

My journalism training gave me the confidence to write about almost anything, as long as I was willing to do research. I wrote about a reclusive artist in upstate New York, wildlife in Connecticut, artificial intelligence, client/server databases, and data security schema. I later learned—what a revelation!—that fiction writers can do research too.

English: A ultramarathoner running the 32 Mile...

NOT ME running the 32 Mile Wyoming Ultramarathon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since my first (unpublished) novel, my fiction has moved further and further away from autobiography. Lately, in my short fiction, I’ve felt particularly drawn to topics and characters I most decidedly don’t know—a homeless former musician in L.A., a retired schoolteacher, an ultramarathoner, ‘Seventies swingers.*

As I work on my latest story, which puts a magical realist twist on a tale of inner-city violence, I keep thinking, “I have no direct experience of poverty or racism. What right do I have to write about it?”

Maybe I have no right. Maybe, like my character, a middle-class white woman who becomes obsessed with helping a young black teenager, I’ll be harshly judged for taking my bleeding-heart viewpoints into a story setting where they have no business going.

English: Homeless on bench, Hermosillo, Sonora...

NOT ME – Homeless on bench in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I’m writing the story anyway. I’m writing it because it is about something I know: the emotional truths experienced by my characters. Fear, disappointment, all-consuming love, regret, alienation—these are truer than anything we can learn through research, and they’re what matter in storytelling.

I believe that, as fiction writers, we have not only a right but an obligation to tell stories about these emotional truths, using the enormous, mixed-up, unfathomable world as a canvas.

What rights and obligations do you think fiction writers have?

* My recent (NOT YET PUBLISHED) short stories include:

  • “Everyone is Gone” – A retired schoolteacher finds love in the dollar store
  • “Forget Me, Forget Me Not” – An ultramarathoner contemplates what she is running away from—and toward
  • “Bad Luck with Cats” – An old woman’s life flashes before her, filled with cats
  • “The Echo” – Homeless but hopeful in L.A.
  • “Back After a Break to Discuss the Decline of Civilization” – ‘Seventies swingers grow up
  • “Tiny Shoes Dancing” – A ballet performance crystallizes a mother/daughter struggle

12 thoughts on “What you don’t know won’t kill you

  1. I think we should never shy away from writing about what we observe in our world. Even if it is not first-hand experience, we give light and feeling to it…we open our eyes and give readers empathy into something we need to feel/know more about.

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  2. I think it should be “write what you’ve emotionally experienced”. That way grief over a lost loved one can become translate into grief over the death of an alien life form in another planet. But it will be honest and it will hit the reader.

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  3. I love the research part, probably a little too much. At a certain point the research has to come to an end and the writer must venture forth onto the blank page. That’s when the hours spent pouring over research play such a crucial role, because little bits of gleaned knowledge glimmer through here and there, lending a feeling of authenticity.

    I think we often misinterpret that saying, Audrey, by taking it to mean we can’t write about being homeless unless we’ve experienced that. But you hit on the larger truth behind the old saw when you stated: “it is about something I know: the emotional truths experienced by my characters.” That is really what we must ‘know’ to make what we write ring true.

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    • Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at—the misinterpretation of the edict, which would lead to very narrow subject matter for most of us! (I haven’t thought about what this means in relation to the great explosion of memoirs over the last decade or so… maybe the topic for another post!)

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  4. Either write what we know or research the heck out of it. And even if we know it, we should still research it. After all, we can’t know everything (though some males in my family like to think they do…)

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  5. I think doing research to learn about a subject for one’s fiction is fine. If not, how could anyone ever write historical fiction? The problem comes when people try to write about things without having either been there OR done the research.

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