Friday, May 16, 2014

Writing Advice My Mother (Never) Gave Me

by Joshua David Bellin

“Write what you know.”

That’s what they say. Fiction, they tell you, is best when it comes from your own experience.

I disagree.

I’ve written a lot of “what I know.” It makes really good memoir.

But it makes really lousy fiction.

I started writing a short story about two cousins who spent their summers catching frogs together before they grew up and went their separate ways. The only problem was, that was my actual life, and the story showed it. I couldn’t get away from what I knew. I turned it into a memoir and published it that way. I think it’s one of the truest things I’ve written.

But it was no short story.

(The photo at right was taken from those days. I wish I could say the date scribbled in the corner is inaccurate, but alas, it's all too true.)

If I wrote only what I know, I’d be pretty limited. I don’t know that much. And what I do know, I know only as me, which would make it pretty hard to create characters who aren’t me.

So I don’t say “write what you know.” I say what a writing teacher once said to me: “Write what you want to know.”

I want to know lots of things. I want to know what it’s like to be other people, to live places I’ve never lived, to have experiences I’ve never had (and probably never will).

I think readers want that too. Isn’t that one of the reasons readers read?

The best stories I've read take me places neither I nor the authors have been. The Lord of the Rings. The Scorpio Races. The Sound and the Fury. The Maze Runner. The Book ThiefBeloved. I could go on forever. Some of these stories are fantasies or science fiction, but not all of them. What characterizes all of them, "realistic" or not, is that the author wanted to know something s/he didn't know, and decided to share it with readers.

My own best stories are the same: they're written about people, places, and things I don’t know, but want to. A burned-out professor who’s bullied into delivering a keynote address. A young woman who’s the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. A child who’s tormented by demons that take the form of his household pets. A man who flees his pregnant wife to drive a truck on a distant, swampy planet. Another man who’s losing his mind (and may be losing his soul). A black child in a white supremacist U.S. A woman accused of witchcraft. A refugee from the 1970s whose coffee shop caters to failed writers. An older sister who tells the story of her younger sibling at the latter’s funeral.

And, of course, a fourteen-year-old boy who struggles to recover his memory in a future world of dust and ruin.

If I’d written only what I know, I never would have met any of these people, traveled to any of these places, experienced any of these things.

And neither would you.

So write what you want to know. Chances are, others will want to know it too.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.>self directed education