June 8th, 2012

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Write What You Know -- Yes or No?

You hear this a lot in writing circles -- write what you know. It occurs to me that this statement can mean many different things. Does it mean I can only ever write about a dark-skinned Jewish girl who grew up in the South? I don't think so. And for some years I struggled with what it really means to write what you know. I tried writing about things I'd had some experience with -- like summer camp or working with runaway teens. But those stories weren't working. Some key element was missing. So I tried writing a story that had nothing to do with anything familiar to me - a story just for fun with a paranormal twist and a strange and complex subplot involving murder and mystery. Still something was missing.

And then my kid got sick and I wrote about that because I had to, for my own sanity, had to get it out on the page. And that's when I came to understand what it means to write what you know. It may not be what you think I mean, though. It doesn't mean this manuscript works because I wrote about illness, something I'd been experiencing. Here's what I learned: At least for me, 'write what you know' means there has to be a kernel of emotional truth in your story. You can write about murder without murdering someone. But there has to be some spark of emotional truth in the telling that brings your story to life.

When I wrote about runaways, I thought I told a beautiful story. But there was none of my own truth in their story, and so I hadn't breathed life into them. I wrote about summer camp, something I knew well. But the story was just a story. Because I wasn't investing my essence in it. But the book involving illness was different. It came out of me in a whoosh, a rush of need to get it out onto the page. And the emotional truths I shared with it brought it to life.

Seeing what a difference this has made to both the process and the product has made it so much easier to write this way. I've got two new manuscripts vying for attention, both invested with a core of my own emotional truth. It feels different to write them, much like the well-known Ernest Hemingway quote: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."I think for a while there I was trying to bleed someone else's blood. My characters bled, but I didn't. I was protecting myself.

Not anymore. The blood on the page is my own. And while it may hurt, it also heals, and it makes for one hell of a better story.