I am republishing here a post that I originally wrote for the blog Book After Book. I appeared back in November 2011.
Write what you know. As aspiring writers we had this drummed into our heads. Write what you know.
I took this advice literally when I sat down to write my thankfully unpublished first novel. It was the story of a person like me (an introverted, slightly intellectual, average looking suburbanite), in a situation like mine, whining about the things that were bugging a person just like me and arguing that the reader should take her side. It was dreadful stuff and I thank God every day that I could not find a publisher for it and that print-on-demand and Kindle did not yet exist. I would never have lived it down.
Plumbing my own life for interesting narratives never yielded much. That is not to say I did not try. Oh I tried. I tried. I tried to make a novel out of a painful, but in retrospect silly, one-sided love affair. I started one on my dabblings with Eastern religion. I tried to turn my professional radio experience into a humorous novel. I tried to write about what it felt like to be in a legal battle with a Russian ballet company over producing a tour of Swan Lake. Yes, I really did have this experience in my life. On the surface it seems as though it has all of the elements for a great drama, exotic foreign characters, legal wranglings, an inside look at the world of ballet, high stakes and hard emotions. Yet I never could really get it off the ground. I was too close to it.
Here is the problem with writing “what you know.” You are limited. You know what happened in life, and you stick to it. Your imagination has no room to play. Your personal relationships and your desire to see yourself in the best light color your story telling. You also feel the drama so keenly that you tend to assume readers will also, so you forget to actually spell the emotions out. You think they’re there because just mentioning the situation may make your emotions soar or drop, but that doesn’t mean a reader will feel the same.
There is a personal danger in writing what you know as well. To grow as a human being, you need to move on from your past. Rehashing the drama of your past instead of living your life in the moment is not the healthiest thing for the writer as a person. Contrary to the suffering artist mystique – I’m going to bust all the myths today – you really do better work when you are healthy.
I never quite succeeded in producing a novel until I stopped trying to write about what I knew, and started to write about what I wondered.
It began in 2000 when I took a bus tour of the beautiful Mount Rainier in the state of Washington. My tour guide was an entertaining middle aged man who described the mountain in poetic terms and kept talking about burning out on his old job. Towards the end of the tour someone finally asked him what his old job had been. He said, “a minister.”
What would cause a burned out minister to leave the church for a job as a tour guide? Was there something that connected religion and natural beauty that appealed to him? Why had he left the ministry? Was his new setting a form of worship? What about the fact that the mountain was actually a sleeping volcano waiting for its next eruption? How could a story about a minister leaving the ministry be related to that?
There were so many questions that my mind could not help coming back to. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a writing prompt that never failed to get me going, thinking, exploring. I used it for ten years. That prompt produced another complete novel (as yet unpublished) that spun off in a surprising direction. (The final version has no minister or mountain.) And eventually it produced Angel.
The answer to the question of what metaphorical volcano shook the minister’s comfortable church life finally came in the form of a man whose beauty captured my imagination. His face reminded me of the angels in Renaissance art, and I wished I could paint. This, too, ignited my curiosity.
What was it about beauty that called out to our creative urges? Was it a desire to capture something that we know is transitory? Is there a spiritual element to the appreciation of beauty or is it mere objectification? What exactly is it that is pleasing about a beautiful face?
Suddenly my two curiosities collided and created a third question: What if the minister fell in love with a beautiful man? What if that was the thing?
From that point I wrote in flow as though the characters– the minister and the beautiful young man– had independent existence and I simply had to take dictation. My novel, Angel, was released by Itineris Press on September 27 and has been getting over all favorable reviews. My life is in it, of course, but there is nothing autobiographical about it.
Write what you know, yes, if by that you mean ground your story in reality. Draw on your experience and your life and make it all truthful and real. But if you want to be inspired, write what you wonder. Write about what piques your curiosity. Keep exploring the questions you can’t let go.