Let’s start simple with the most basic advice any beginning writer gets in their quest to become better: “write what you know.”
Over the last few years, I’ve seen this four word sentence everywhere. The first time I’d heard it was from my aunt Brenda. If anyone can be directly credited for my love of reading and writing, it’s her. And when I was a wee thing of fifteen, I’d asked my aunt what would help me become a better writer. Brenda said, “The most important rule you always have to remember is ‘write what you know.”
I was a smart-ass even then, and my exact response was, “Yeah, right! I can’t write what I know, or I’d be arrested!”
To which my aunt replied, “That’s what fiction is for.”
Let’s pause here to consider two things. First of all, I wasn’t joking, even if I was being sarcastic. At fourteen, I was burdened by so many crimes that my just forming conscience couldn’t keep up with my past. Writing what I knew would have involved making a long list of “true crime” confessions, mostly involving petty theft or sex crimes. Some of my confession could also potentially send other family and friends to jail. So it is not in mine or their best interests to write a tell-all autobiography. (And a collective sigh of relief rises from my blog reading family members.)
By the way, I didn’t stop being a criminal just because I grew a conscience. That happened in stages and took close to a decade for my conscience to overcome my insanity. But my roundabout point is, this is why I’ve often written about criminals and “anti-heroes.” I’m partly writing what I know by describing characters like me, or like my friends. If I tried to write a good guy who had a normal life, I’d be pulling shit out of my ass.
But the second point that bears pointing out is, my aunt acknowledged that my past wasn’t open for…truthful interpretation. I could write what I knew, but I would always need to doctor it up with other creative details. Characters could have parts of me or people I knew in their makeup, but they couldn’t be too close to the truth. I could make myself vulnerable through my characters, but there had to be limits in place. There had to be filters to dilute the truth to a more tolerable level, both for me, and for the readers.
I’ve avoided covering some topics because I didn’t want people to think I was romanticizing or promoting certain…lifestyles. I’ve made no secret that I was sexually active at a young age, and that I was sexually promiscuous. But I’ve never written a young character who was completely like me, because I didn’t want to deal with the fallout such a character would create.
I’ve come close to the truth in rough drafts, but in subsequent edits, I’ve watered down the impact of my characters. Time and again this has raised in me a conflict. On one side, my aunt declares “Write what you know!” On the other a teenage version of me perpetually snorts and says, “I can’t do that without getting sued or arrested!”
When it comes to young characters, readers of my work often complain, “these kids act older than their proper ages.” That’s where I’m coming close to the truth. That’s where I’m showing you what it was like to be me. But I’ve edited out a lot in subsequent revisions to avoid saying too much about myself. I don’t want to offend people, so I cut out some of the scenes that I feel are too graphic or that come across as romanticizing my past.
Still, from time to time, I think about that simple advice: “write what you know.”
What do I know?
I know what it’s like to live a double life, and even a triple life. While I’ve never felt shame at my past, I have avoided writing about my sexuality as it developed. Because really, my blunt and simplistic writing style would make the truth come out sounding all wrong.
This week, the muse proposed writing a story about a couple of kids who are secretly married. She wants me to graphically detail every aspect of their two year relationship, and she wants me to base this story off of my past. She wants me to be graphic and pervasive, showing all of the sex, and all of the “boring parts” as well.
The story could never be published. Any story with sexually active minors is pretty much a guaranteed no in this day and age. Even something as tame as Lolita would be rejected if proposed as a new book today. This would be bad enough if the story only had this one fatal flaw, but this new story also deals with the more dull moments of the kids’ lives. There is no huge conflict to sort out, because their relationship is the story. Their double lives, and the double lives of their parents, are the story.
I’m not deluded. I know that a story like this would cause offense if I published it, even if I self-published it. There shouldn’t even be a reason to write it, because nobody wants to know what kind of life I had as a kid. And yet, even if I can’t publish it or show it to anyone, I keep writing this story.
At times I feel guilty for what I’m writing because a scene is too graphic, or because the characters are doing some activity too similar to a real event from my past. But then I remind myself that this story can be written and put away. Yes, it would be the most honest story I’ve ever written.
But it would also disturb most everyone who read it. It wouldn’t help people understand what it’s like to grow up faster than other kids. It wouldn’t create a platform for people to talk about early sexuality, and it wouldn’t get people to open up to each other about their sexuality.
So I shouldn’t write it. But I am because the muse wants to write what we know, even if it could never sell.
And this is perhaps the saddest thought I’ve had while pondering this topic: once I write this “sick” story about two kids having a regular sex life, I can get back to healthy, marketable stories about people being mutilated and tortured. When we live in a world where graphic violence is more culturally acceptable than an honest assessment of sexuality, in my opinion our priorities as a people are messed up. But then, I am crazy. So what do I know?
In any case, I’ll finish this one story, and then I’ll hide it in my trunk, never to sell it unless I get rich and need a way to commit career suicide. I’ll go back to writing dark fantasy stories that hint at the truth, but never approach reality without many filters to protect the readers from me.
Write what you know; it seems like such simple advice. Maybe one day, I’ll remove all the filters and take that advice to heart.