We all know the old adage, “Write What You Know.” Countless writers have argued either in favor or against the advice. I hope you’ll humor me as I add one more opinion to the fray.
Is this still good advice? Was it ever? Like all advice, it ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
Bret Anthony Johnston, a creative writing professor at Harvard, hands out a bulleted list of common mistakes to avoid at the beginning of each semester. His list ends with “Don’t Write What You Know,” which (you’ll be pleased to know) also scares the fancy pants off ivy league undergrads. You can read more of his writing philosophy here.
Or, if you’re like me and would much prefer writing about things that haven’t happened yet and most likely never will, B.A.J.’s advice comes as a relief.
B.A.J suggests that personal experiences and emotions form the scaffold upon which writers can construct stories and ought to be demolished before the story is complete.
It goes without saying that “what you know” has a broader implication than simply writing about events through which you have lived. To the best of my knowledge, Mary Shelley never animated a piecemeal corpse; J.K. Rowling never caught a golden snitch; and Douglas Adams probably never traveled via infinite improbability drive.
At this point you might be asking why this topic is even included in a blog about research. As suggested by its prefix, research requires that we “search again.” To effectively write “what you know” we must first re-search the experiences, encounters, and emotions and consider them in ways not previously considered.
With proper guidance, any personal experience can be transformed into story fodder. The best story fodder is what slips into your mind while waiting in line at the grocery store or on the drive home. They are experiences you’ve texted your friends and those that despite replaying in your mind, you don’t yet fully understand. The following exercise is intended to help you brainstorm potential story fodder.
Pick one question from each of the three categories. For each of your three selected questions, set a timer for 10 minutes and free write. Consider the why’s and how’s of the situation. Try incorporating all five senses, your emotional response, and reasons you find the choice significant.
- What’s the oddest job you’ve held or oddest task you’ve completed?
- What’s the most thoughtful thing you’ve done for someone?
- Describe an event you’ve experienced that no one else you know has.
- Describe a time when you were at your most spontaneous or adventurous.
- Describe a time when you were disappointed.
- What scared you most as a child?
- Describe a time when you felt invincible.
- Describe a time when you felt helpless.
- As a child, who was the strangest, most eccentric person you knew?
- Describe a bizarre encounter with a stranger that you still don’t quite understand.
- Name a quirk or bad habit of a friend that you can’t stand.
- Describe a time when someone you know surprised you and did something you didn’t expect.
Here’s my answer to the following question: What’s the oddest job you’ve ever held?
Oddest job? Call Center at the School of Journalism. Was assigned to surveys interviewing the elderly and truckers…lonely people who seemed very eager to tell me all about their newspaper subscription, electricity bills, or weigh stations…Looked like I should be playing PaperBoy or space invaders on the screens…Sense of comradery among those who worked there…my throat would hurt by the end of the shift…There was a large bulletin board that had the name of the person with the most completed surveys
For the rest, click here: Abigail’s Tumblr!
Brainstorming about my experiences in the Call Center helped me to develop the premise behind my short story The Eviction.
I’ve often thought back to my experiences at the Call Center; they were fodder that begged to be transformed into a story. But my experiences alone were not enough: hours of tedium punctuated by sporadic eccentricity. I had to figure out how to transform the moments of eccentricity into fiction.
So I consulted my folder of half-formed story ideas. Every writer ought to have one, a safe haven to store nonsensical thoughts; random observations; and (occasionally) fleshed out worlds, people, and story arcs. I unearthed a little gem that barely made a shred of sense.
catacombs = dead people apartments / storage lockers = dead things
Advice often reiterated on The Writing Excuses podcast is that writers should combine story ideas and components. (If Meg’s blog hasn’t yet turned you into a listener, here’s yet another recommendation.) This results in a richer world replete with meaningful subplots, connections, and a sense that something is going on other than a single-minded story arc.
In my case, I combined my experiences at the Call Center with my lousy catacombs/storage locker note. In the resulting world of The Eviction, for a monthly fee, consciousnesses of the deceased are housed in storage facilities, and loved ones can communicate with them through the Call Center. I took the experience of my sore throat and cast it into the sci-fi supernatural realm. Thus, the deceased in the story are bound by audio waves and those working at the Call Center are slowly losing their voices to the cause. I proceeded to take this idea one step further by introducing reverb rings–leach-like contraptions coiled around the throats of those responsible for binding the dead.
But unlike B.A.J.’s suggestion that the scaffolding of my Call Center experiences would fall away as the story progressed, I couldn’t help but detect its lingering influence.
Instead of a scaffolding, I liken “what you know” to a bay leaf. No one wants to eat a bay leaf. Plenty of people want to eat dishes made with bay leaves (Gumbo anyone?). The trick is to subtly blend “what you know” into the fold, so that even after you remove the leaves, the flavor remains.
While my protagonist spends only about a page in the actual Call Center, her actions are informed by the physical and emotional ramifications of working there. This lends the story a more relatable, authentic feel which helps to ground its supernatural elements.
The second part of the exercise is to browse through your folder of story ideas, choose one, and combine it with each of your brainstormed experiences, emotions, or encounters. I challenge you to blend elements that at first may seem incompatible, those combinations often form the most compelling, original stories.
How do we know if we’ve gone far enough? How do we know when we have successfully transformed our experience, emotion, or encounter past the point of recognizability?
Tips for Blending Experiences
Answer the following questions of your story in comparison to your original personal experience. Can you answer one or (preferably) more of these questions in the affirmative?
- Do the events in the story have a different inciting incident?
- Does the story have a different resolution?
- Do one or more of the characters react differently?
- Do the characters have additional conflicts or worries?
- Have you included sci-fi or fantasy elements?
Your story should not include a blow-by-blow account of what happened in your personal experience. Another test is to give the story to someone who was present at that experience. Ask if there is anything too familiar about the story. If so, you’ve got some more work to do.
Tips for Blending Emotions
A good tip in reinventing story fodder is to take two steps forward or one step back (clap your hands once and clap your hands twice…), adjusting the intensity of the emotion to fit the scene.
The first time I peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon, I became very dizzy and had to sit down. I could easily employ the feelings of awe and nausea that I experienced while, for example, describing a character encountering a massive space ship for the first time.
Taking it one step back, the character could brace herself to stop the dizziness or close her eyes for a moment. Taking it two steps forward, she could become violently sick or have a panic attack. While the essential emotion is present in both scenarios, you can temper or amplify the emotional reaction to best fit the scene.
Tips for Blending Encounters
As for character encounters, I subscribe to the Mr.(or Mrs.)Potato Head approach. Do not write a character solely based off a single person. It’s rude, lazy, and potentially embarrassing if the person in question reads the story and figures it out.
Instead, collect pieces of different persons and combine them, filling in the gaps as you go. It’s also a good idea to keep a folder for interesting character quirks, beliefs, and physical attributes. And like you would with Mr. Potato Head, mix and match until you’ve created a unique character around whom you can build your story.
The goal, at the completion of your story, is for your original brainstormed experience, emotion, or encounter to be unrecognizable yet maintain its essential flavor.
By all means, write “what you know,” but before your story is through, you ought to re-search what it is you know about “what you know.”