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Cooking Life Into Fiction: Writing From What You Know

Flickr Creative Commons: Peter Miller

We’ve all heard the injunction to “write what you know.” Well, yes and no.

If it were true, unequivocally, a female writer would have no male characters, and there would be no fantasy or historical fiction. That’s obviously not what the statement is meant to imply. While the injunction has merit in important ways—including, for example, caveats about the danger of cultural appropriation—taking it literally is far too restrictive. We’d be limited to memoir and autobiography.

Rather, we need to write from what we know—from the human truths we’ve come to understand through our own lived experience. Those truths can deepen a story. They can tell the attentive writer what her characters might feel and do, even if she’s never been part of their precise world.

As a novelist, I create characters and put them into situations that I’ve never actually experienced, yet I “know” what they’re experiencing. If I didn’t, my writing would be trite, false, or both. In my own novel, Queen of the Owls, I was able to enter the psyche of Elizabeth, the protagonist, even though I’ve never studied art history or posed nude.

I could do that because there are deeply personal experiences that I drew on and “translated” into Elizabeth’s story. They’re the garden from which I gathered the fruits and vegetables that got cooked into the novel.

To be blunt: Queen of the Owls is not a disguised memoir and I am not Elizabeth, but I couldn’t have written the book if I didn’t know what it was like to be seen as an owl, a sexless intellectual, instead of a desirable woman—as Elizabeth was, or thought she was. If my junior high school heartthrob hadn’t dismissed me with the offhand reply, “Barbara? Oh, she’s a brain.” If I hadn’t channeled the pain of soul-crushing infidelity, decades later, into writing a doctoral dissertation in record time.

Those were hard sentences to write, but without them this would be just a safe little theoretical essay, and who needs more of those?

At the same time, “write what you know” doesn’t mean using your writing for personal catharsis. My first (terrible) manuscript did just that, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was drawing on my own painful experience of an unhappy divorce—ostensibly because that was the material I could write about most authentically, but actually because I still needed to work through the shame, humiliation, and rage.

I was writing about my experience as an admired-but-not-desired wife, rather than from my experience. I wasn’t ready to write from my experience, not yet. The pain hadn’t been digested, understood, transcended; it had only been felt.

Fast forward a couple of years, and a lot of hard inner work. Externally, I was fortunate to meet someone who thought I was the most desirable woman he’d ever seen and then, later, someone who cherished me as both mind and body. Being different as a person allowed me to be different as a writer. When I started working on Queen of the Owls—after learning more about myself and more about my craft—I was ready to let my own experiences and emotions show me how my characters would feel in their story.

What I learned, in other words, is that “writing what you know” is a two-step process. First, we take what is personal, particular to us, and search for its universal essence. Then we take that universal essence and embed it in a new particular—a character, an event, a fictional world. To put it another way, we turn our lived experience into an abstraction, and then turn that abstraction into something concrete. We put our experiences in a pot, boil them down to an essential “reduction,” and then use that “reduction” to flavor a new dish.

But that’s only half of it. Here’s the other half.

After I’d transformed my personal understanding into the motivations and events in Queen of the Owls, the relationship flipped. Just as my life had influenced the book, the book influenced my life. That is, it changed me—again.

I didn’t realize that at first, not until I began talking about Queen of the Owls in public settings—during interviews, at readings, on panels. I’d expected to feel anxious and exposed. Surely people would ask where the idea came from and whether Elizabeth was me; how could I answer without triggering all that grief and shame I’d worked so hard to transcend?

But it didn’t happen that way. What I discovered, in answering those questions rather than avoiding them, was that writing the book had freed me.  It wasn’t just a matter of getting my pain on paper, putting it into words; that would have been mere catharsis. It was the act of creation itself.

Having exposed myself to the world, through my novel, there really wasn’t much left to hide. After all, anyone who’d read my book had probably figured out that I knew what it was to be married to someone whose eyes never lit up when I entered a room. I’d already outed myself. The only thing left was to embrace it. Publicly.

When I did that, daring to speak about myself as well as about Queen of the Owls, it changed me. It was an experience that went way beyond “book promotion.”

People talk about the line between fiction and life, but I don’t see it as a line any more. It’s a membrane— permeable, allowing movement in both directions.

One of my writing teachers, the wise and generous Sandra Scofield, once told me: “There’s no harvest so bountiful as one’s own pain.” The image of a harvest is a good one. Pain can be fertile soil. But the crop doesn’t consist of quasi-autobiographical accounts of that pain. It’s whatever you, as a writer, can harvest and transform through your craft.

Have there been experiences in your life that you’ve been able to “cook” into fiction? Do you think a writer of fiction can really have the objectivity to use her own life as the basis for a work of fiction? Where’s the line—or is there one—between memoir and fiction that draws on one’s own life?

About Barbara Linn Probst [1]

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.