How to Write What You Know—and What You Don't
When I was in the 7th grade I had the chance to meet Madeleine L'Engle at a young writer's conference. I think I only shook her hand and said hi, not knowing what else to say, even though she wrote one of my all-time favorite children's books, A Wrinkle in Time. I didn't have an appreciation for the mastery of her art until I was much older.
A few years ago Carole F. Chase helped L'Engle compile bits about her life into a book called Madeleine L'Engle Herself. It's essentially a collection of little vignettes about her life, about faith, and especially about writing.
I've turned to this book more than a few times since I picked it up several years ago and am always surprised at the wisdom within the pages. For example, this snippet:
Write from Experience
You must write from your own experience. There simply is no other way to write.
Stanislavski, the great director of the Moscow Art Theater, always taught his students that you have to act out of your own experience, that you cannot act anything you haven't experienced. Once when he was doing a production of Othello, the young man who was playing Othello went to him in great frustration and said, "Mr. Stanislavski, you tell me I have to act out of my own experience. And Othello has to murder Desdemona. I never murdered anybody. How can I act out of my own experience?" Stanislavski just looked at him and said, "Have you ever gone after a fly?"
In just two paragraphs L'Engle presents a means to solving some of toughest writing challenges by helping you realize that sometimes all you need is perspective. How can you write from experience when you haven't experienced what you are writing about? Quite simply, she implies, by looking at the situation from a vantage point that would be familiar to you. A few people have to die in my novel (history killed them off before I did!) so this particular advice is poignant.
This also struck a chord with something else I read, an excerpt from a 1961 Hemingway interview in Writer’s Digest. His advice to the writer:
"When you write," he said, "your object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, emotion, to the reader...when you walk into a room and you get a certain feeling or emotion, remember back until you see exactly what it was that gave you the emotion. Remember what the noises and smells were and what was said. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.
"And watch people, observe, try to put yourself in somebody else's head. If two men argue, don't just think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both their sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand."
What both of these writers are essentially saying is that you need to employ your best critical and creative thinking skills in order to be able to sound like you know what the hell you are talking about. When you aren't writing, listen, pay attention and think. When you are writing and need to figure out the best way to convey to your readers a certain gesture or exactly how the afternoon light strikes the kitchen table, think back to what you do know and find a way to paint that into the scenes of places unknown.
I write about ancient Rome. As I mentioned, there are deaths in my books, many of them, by poisoning, by fire, by the sword, and a few other brutal methods. In my “real” life, I have never seen a Roman slave. I certainly have never murdered anyone. I couldn’t begin to tell you how to pin back your hair in a beautiful ancient style (although this woman can!). I don’t know what it’s like to eat a meal with eight other people lying down on the couch next to me while a slave cuts up food for us.
If I had let my actual “experiences” constrain me, my book would never have been written.
Grubbie and Harvard Creative Writing Director, Bret Anthony Johnston (whose book Remember Me Like This needs to be on your to-read list), wrote about this in The Atlantic long before I came to the page to espouse my thoughts on writing what you know.
“I say fiction is an act of courage and humility, a protest against our mortality, and we, the authors, don’t matter. What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas, our egos and entitlements and flesh. Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say. Trust the example of the authors you love to read—Flaubert: “Emma, c’est moi”—and trust that your craft, when braided with compassion, will produce stories that matter both to you and to readers you’ve never met.”
We infuse our characters with what we know and thus armed, we must let them step off into the land of the unknown. Send your imagination with them. Tuck a big care package of human emotions under their arm before you shove them out the door and onto the rocky path before them. Then perch on their shoulders for the ride.
Crystal King is a 30-year marketing, social media and communications veteran, freelance writer and Pushcart-nominated poet. She is the author of the FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and THE CHEF'S SECRET about the famous Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi. Currently Crystal works as a social media professor for HubSpot, a leading provider of Inbound marketing software. Crystal has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet writing center. A former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her MA in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in media res. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her website: crystalking.comSee other articles by Crystal King