Write What You [Don’t] Know

“Write what you know” is an idiom in the creative writing world as common as “show, don’t tell.” These nuggets of writing advice are well meaning, but sometimes, advice without explication can be as useless as a bag of potpourri in a landfill.

I recently attended a creative writing conference with a workshop that offered a better alternative to write what you know (WWYK). The workshop presenter called it “Auditing Fiction for Truth.”

Granted, writers rely on their lived experiences to authenticate characters and scenes. However, when we rely too heavily on the authenticity of those experiences, we risk the beauty of fiction— which is to make stuff up. Imagination.

Amateur writers are often hell-bent on trying to ensure that their characters look, act, or sound real; they are pushing for true representation. When unchecked, WWYK can run you straight into a ditch of writing sludge that contains recycled, flat, and/or lazy characterizations and scenes. That’s why it’s important to think about the distinctions between truth and real when writing. Real stems from what we’ve seen, felt, or heard. The evidence. Truth, however, requires you to go beyond the tangibility of those experiences.

While fiction is a big enjoyable lie, it’s the writer’s job to discover truths behind character and place, and then infuse our findings into the story. One way to achieve this is via a character profile. Profiles are easy to complete, and they’re as common as WWKY and show, don’t tell. You open a Word document or grab some paper to jot down everything you know about a character, including physical descriptions, likes/dislikes, and back story. You do the same with setting. During this process, it’s okay to rely on the evidence of what you saw or heard, what you tasted, and also how you felt. All of that history is an overflow of inventory that you can use to authenticate the details of your story.

The next step is to audit your inventory, to move beyond the facts. Take a critical look at what you’ve recorded. What stands out? What surprises you? What triggers your emotions? What’s meaningful? Which one or two pieces of your truths are worth extracting, maybe enhancing, and sharing with readers in your narrative?

The audit is a simple enough task, but it’s one that shows a writer’s work is never done. In my opinion, a writer’s journey is cyclical. Once we learn something, we usually come across it again and again. So, it’s our responsibility to take advantage of the recurrences, to improve what we know, to build upon what we’ve learned, and to polish our circles until we can honestly call what we do a craft.

[Originally posted on 11.2.17 at the Black Lesbian Literary Collective]

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