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.
Since my first (unpublished) novel, my fiction has moved further and further away from autobiography.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.
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