I’ve recently been reading Stephen King’s On Writing. The first half relates King’s memories of his life “so far” (I say that because the book was originally written on 2000, so it falls fourteen years short, so to speak :) ), and the second half involves King’s thoughts on the process of writing. It is a privilege to learn from the great writers of our time. The thing I find interesting about this particular book is that it focuses so much on what is, essentially, the making of a writer. In so many ways you can see the elements that pushed King to become the author he is now. You can see the determination every writer must have as he recounts rejection after rejection, writing—and submitting—from a uniquely and honestly, unbelievably young age. His childhood, his young adult friendships and family life and even a life-threatening car accident—each and every experience informed his writing, and it wasn’t because he was a teenage girl being rejected by her high school peers and using her psychic powers for revenge.
No, what he experienced was emotion.
Every beginning writer has heard the advice: Write what you know. It’s well meaning. It’s even true, but not in the way you think. If each of us had to experience the things we write about, we couldn’t write about a character being shot unless we had been shot. We couldn’t write a character with a terminal illness unless we’d had a terminal illness. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have no desire to go that far. Writers research every day, what it’s like to be shot, what living in different places entails, the details of technical and medical and historical advances and events. What we don’t have to research is the universal human experience of emotions.
Write what you know? How about loss? I might not have lost a parent, but I’ve lost a child. The emotion is the same, if in a different context. Same with anger. Happiness. Love. Desire. Need. Writers delve not just into their minds for knowledge, but into their hearts and souls. We pour what we find out onto the page, baring ourselves to our readers. We haven’t necessarily shared an experience we’ve had, but we have shared an emotional experience. It hurts and it’s scary and it takes a kind of courage many people don’t have, but we do it because we have to. Because who we are demands it. Because that’s what it takes to be a writer.
Write what you know.
Good advice. :)