Writing what I know

I’m an only child.

A real only child, too: no half-siblings, step-siblings, live-in relatives of roughly the same age, siblings who were extremely older or younger than I, or secret siblings lurking in closets somewhere, ready to tumble out and reveal a share parentage. Nothing like that.

We had a family of three, my father and mother and I, and while I wanted an older sister during my teen years, my parents never performed that particular miracle. (In college, I wanted an older brother, someone who would tell me which men were okay to date and which weren’t. My parents never obliged me there, either.)

It had its benefits. It also had its drawbacks. Too much parental attention, for one, and paradoxically, a high degree of loneliness. I spent a lot of time reading and writing and storytelling to fill the long hours on weekends and summers. (We didn’t have kids in my neighborhood who were close to my age.)

I’m envious of people with siblings. I hear conversations between close sisters and marvel at how they talk about their shared upbringing. I can’t fathom what that must be like to have someone who had shared my life for that long and in that way. Growing up, I had friends whom I considered to be as close as a sister. I also knew that if that girl had to choose between me and her real sister for some reason, she’d choose her sister; blood trumps water.

I’m reconciled or resigned to this fact.

Now what I feel most acutely is how this only-child status has limited my writing. It’s difficult to write about sibling relationships when I’ve never experienced them. I have at least three only children in The Cruelest Month (my first novel) and if two other major characters have siblings, they don’t appear in the manuscript.

My second novel, the nameless-shapeless mess, revolved around the relationship between two sisters after one sleeps with the other’s husband and becomes pregnant. Besides being entirely too melodramatic, the novel had a huge fatal flaw: I couldn’t figure out the sisters’ relationship after the betrayal.

I knew the guilty one felt horrible and remorseful and wanted her sister to forgive her.

I knew the victim felt angry as hell at both her sister and (the equally remorseful) husband, and her hurt is compounded by her love for her sister and husband.

But I couldn’t figure out the emotional landscape beyond that. How do sisters forgive each other? How do they treat each other when they’re hurt? How did they interact before the adultery? I asked questions of various sisters I knew; their feedback was helpful. But it wasn’t a substitute for experience.

So one walked around yelling at everyone in every chapter, and the other cried and begged for forgiveness in every chapter. Stories thrive on conflict, but this wasn’t productive conflict, the type that changes people and moves a plot forward. This was stagnant and pointless. When the characters “changed,” the changes felt improbable. Silly, even.

Eventually I dumped the novel and admitted to myself that my only child status had limited my imagination. A Certain Slant of Light, my third novel, had a protagonist who is—you guessed it—an only child.

I hate this particular limitation.

I hate being limited in my writing at all.

Aspiring novelists are always told to “write what you know,” but I’ve never thought this meant “write only about only children who are white, straight, bipolar evangelical Christian females living in the South who majored in English and married young and have two kids.”

I want to write about people different from me and I want their narrative voices to ring true. Men, minorities, people outside the mainstream: I want to put myself in their shoes and write their stories. And yes, that includes people with siblings. So why have I been told to “write what I know”?

I’ve read various interpretations of this writing adage. Write what you want to know. Write what you can imagine. Write what you have experienced emotionally, not just physically.

This last rings true to me. Emotions don’t necessarily reflect the truth of physical reality (look at my emotion-driven thoughts during a wild mood swing!) but they do shape my view of my life.

What I’ve experienced emotionally is vital to conveying the truth in the lie of fiction. I’ve experienced feelings of alienation from my own body . . . despair at my helplessness. . . confusion, when I couldn’t trust my own mind . . . paralyzing fear . . . desire for the unattainable . . . rage against systems and people and ideas . . .and utter aloneness, both contented and terrifying. I know positive emotions, too: elation, joy, peace.

Right now, I have a point of view character who isn’t of my race or gender. We have totally different upbringings; I haven’t experienced life from within his skin and I never will.

But maybe, just maybe, I have experienced certain of his emotions in different contexts. Maybe I can crawl into his shoes for a while.

It’s uncomfortable.

Frightening.

Confusing sometimes, and paradoxical, this interpretation of the world that is so different yet so similar to mine.

I don’t know where this will lead. But I hope that these emotional experiences in my writing give me a greater depth of understanding for other people.

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Writing what I know

  1. I agree that writing about people who are different from ourselves is difficult, but I think you hit on how to do it — writing what you’ve experienced emotionally. I was recently reminded of the difficulty of this task. I’m taking a class on improving race relations and recognizing privilege. One of our assignments was to write a narrative from the POV of a person different from oneself. It went on to say that we should do our best to eliminate stereotypes and biases. It was difficult. I’m still working on the assignment even though we discussed it weeks ago. I read an interesting piece recently about Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and now executive producer of new ABC series, How to Get Away with Murder. I tried to find it so I could link but was in a rush & had no luck. Anyway, I like what she had to say about writing about people different from her — it was something like people are people. We all experience fear of rejection; we long for acceptance, approval and love. I know what you mean about writing about sibling relationships, though. I have a younger brother, but we were never close — almost like separate only children. I write very few stories where a close sibling relationship is front and center because it’s just not something I know. I’ve tried, but it comes off contrived and inauthentic.

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    1. Good thoughts. You hit on an aspect of this that I just wrote about in a blog post I’m scheduling for next week: writing from the POV of someone of a different race. I’m working on a POV character who is an African-American male, and it’s been a huge stretching/growing experience for my fiction writing, let me tell you! But people are people, as you said, and no matter how different we are, we still have things in common.

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  2. I think if you write what feels real to you, the reader has a good chance of thinking it sounds real to them. Then again, if I go too far out of my experience or study I think then I’ve gone into la-la land. So I’ll stay away from that, I hope.

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  3. What about finding someone to interview who generally fits the character you want to portray? (I just re-read the piece to see if you mentioned this idea,, but I didn’t spot it. However, I’m also hardly awake!!!!!!) It doesn’t have to be a drawn-out endeavor, and I agree you don’t have to do that in order to write something convincing….especially with your creative talent, but it’s just a thought!

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    1. This sounds like a good idea, Dyane. For some reason, that never occurred to me, probably because I have such a limited number of people I know in real life. I did try to “interview” a few people about the sisters-novel, but while their remarks helped, I still had to abandon the novel. (Not such a great loss, really!)

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      1. I understand, as I too have a limited # of people in my life I could turn to….I’m sorry you had to abandon the novel, but I have faith in your future projects!:)

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      2. Don’t be sorry about this particular novel! It wasn’t a great concept, really. I spent a year, wrote a full first draft, then 2/3 of a second draft, got three chapters into a third draft and realized: I love these characters but they’re not going to do anything. And since I had an idea for my third novel, I jumped into that one. So it’s all good. 🙂

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  4. I was going to suggest something similar to Dyane: that you ask someone in that demographic or whatever to read the piece and see if it rings true.

    I really like your idea about writing what you’ve experienced emotionally, not just physically. It immediately made me think of Charlotte Bronte. She never had a passionate mutual love affair like Jane Eyre and Rochester did, but she had a deep emotional well to draw on so she was able to convey that relationship in a convincing and striking way. (Mind you, her other books tended to mine the same territory, so her experience was a bit narrow in the end.) And Emily Bronte too — she had even less (make that zero) romantic experience than Charlotte yet she wrote a classic of love/passion/jealousy in Wuthering Heights. So I would say write what you love, not what you know. Write what comes from a deep emotional place even if it’s not something you’ve gone through in your life — AND maybe get feedback from someone who actually has gone through it.

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    1. Yeah, the Bronte sisters had an interesting, though narrow, set of experiences to draw from, didn’t they?

      I’ll try to find someone with experiential knowledge to give me feedback. Like I told Dyane, sometimes the obvious never occurs to me!

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