Write what you don’t know

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There’s a certain amount of tension when writing a character that has a strong, defining experience that you yourself have not had.  One of my protagonists in the Haunted series is a woman who lost her father to suicide.  I have not experienced that tragedy firsthand.  Sometimes I wonder if I should even be writing about it.  How could I possibly do justice to that?

My friend and mentor Paul McComas (I’m constantly calling him that, I should make an acronym or something) likes to talk about a period he went through in college that his writing teacher called “The Earnest Young Man Stories.”  Told “write what you know,” he produced a series of stories about a sensitive college aged guy interacting with the world.  After a number of these stories, his teacher told him “You know…you know people other than yourself.”  Point being, when we write fiction, we don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, limited to the strict area of our own personal experience.  Our personal experience informs our writing, but so does our relationships with other people.  So does the things that we read, the things we watch, the things we observe , the things we deduce.  

I do need to be careful, I think, because despite the fact that my work is fiction, it will still inform my readers’ understanding of that experience, the same way the things I read inform my own. (This, incidentally, is one of my issues with things like The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. People base their views of theology or of how to properly go about BDSM on what they read in these books, and both are irresponsibly, and, in the case of 50 Shades, dangerously inaccurate.)  But that doesn’t mean I need to, or should, limit my exploration of the human experience based only on my tiny slice.

On War Narratives and the Human Condition

ImageI wrote in an earlier post about how it’s impossible to fully understand a tragedy unless you were there.  I think war pretty clearly belongs in that category.  Only people who have been to war can fully understand the experience.

I am fond of war narratives.  One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War.  One of my favorite books of all time is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the satirical classic set in World War II.  Both of these narratives portray war as a liminal experience, a strange jumble of contrasting superlatives.  Where life is precious exactly because it is valued so little.  Where moments of horror are imbued with a dark sardonic humor.  Where circumstances can whiplash 180, boredom to carnage, when a slog through the jungle is pierced by a rigged artillery shell that blows a friend into the trees, when a milk run suddenly meets enemy fire and the rear gunner is gutted inside his flak suit.  Where the most meaningless becomes the most meaningful: Lemon Tree and the Snowdens of Yesteryear.

War narratives are a touchstone into a world that, God willing, I will never see firsthand.  However, war narratives have much to teach us, about ourselves, about others, about the very best and very worst of humanity.  In particular, they have much to teach writers, since a writer is always a student of the human condition.

Try reading some war stories.  The Things They Carried  and Catch-22 are exceptional places to start.