What Do You Know?

by | Jan 27, 2021 | Journal

Writers love to give each other advice. (Hello.) Unfortunately, that advice too often sounds, especially on social media, like rules and edicts and restraints. And while there are “rules,” most advice falls into the “your mileage may vary” category. After all, if there were one proven way to generate a successful script every time, this would be a much simpler endeavor. But this is an art, not a science. 

So, as we all lean into the new year and the wonderful work we plan to do, let’s unpack one of those rules-that-isn’t-a-rule: “Write what you know.”

This statement, usually attributed to Mark Twain, has sent generations of writers down a restrictive path. Too often, writers hear this chestnut and choose stories based on personal experience. Across decades of teaching, I’ve seen writers tie themselves into knots trying to bring real life to the page. The main difficulty is that life rarely follows three-act structure: We love art because it provides catharsis in a neat, embraceable package. Just because a particular incident in your life was resoundingly joyous or deeply tragic doesn’t mean it yields a moving, well-structured story.

The other difficulty, usually a companion to the first, is that it takes time to gain sufficient perspective on events to be able to transform them into drama. (That’s why people used to wait until later in life to write their memoirs.) If the story is still raw in your heart, regardless of how long ago it happened, it is almost impossible to step back and see all the players objectively in order to discern the beating heart of the story.

With all due respect to Mr. Clements, instead of “write what you know,” we should be urging each other to “write what you feel.”

Whatever your life experience has been, you have felt joy. Sorrow. Hilarity. Rage. Passion, both positive and negative. You knowthese emotions and what they do to your mind, body, and relationships. Tap into those emotions and let them fill your characters, their desires and fears, their goals and their obstacles, whatever you may be writing – from gritty realism to high-flung fantasy and everything in between. The characters we remember are the ones who make us feel deeply, even if their experience is completely removed from our own. When we feel what they’re feeling, we join their journey. We live in their story. Your story.

Take a deep dive into your emotions and see where they lead you. I’ve spent much of my career writing “lighter” fare, but most of my best work – my most emotionally resonant work – has come from a deep, dark place, filled with rage and anger. But I want to exorcise those feelings, not pass them on to anyone else, so I use them to put edges on my joy and humor as I write that lighter fare. It gives my work texture and lets me layer meaning in subtext. Many writers and philosophers across the centuries have commented on the intertwined nature of emotions. One of my favorites comes from Kahlil Gibran: “Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Whatever you are writing in this new year, be bold. Write characters as complicated as you are on a journey as surprising as yours. Cast fear and doubt to the side of the road, and forge ahead, feeling deeply every marvelous step of the way.

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