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. [Read more…]