On Writing: Write What You Know? Maybe Not.

Reality Lacks A Satisfying Narrative Arc

Guest post by Jeanette Grey

write what you know

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The message is everywhere: write what you know. We hear it from college professors, from abrasive-but-ultimately-kind-mentor-characters in movies, from random relatives who think they have sage advice to offer about writing in spite of never having really pursued it themselves.

It’s reinforced when friends suggest you should write a book about your life. Or about their life. Or about the life of one of their friends who recently had something interesting happen to them.

It’s reinforced when everyone scoffs at the disclaimer in the front of every novel about all people, places and things being fictional.

And it’s so, so tempting. I don’t know about you, but my most wildly productive writing years occurred when I was in my teens and bleeding words onto a page. I just had so many emotions to deal with and no other way to process them except through writing. I wrote what I knew, all right. I wrote my pain, and my joy, and the petty, petty details of my relationships, my family life, my school life. My word count was astronomical, and the sheer carnage in terms of wasted novelty notebooks and drained sparkle pens was enough to fund my local stationary store for years.

Here’s the thing, though: writing about reality is, in general, a terrible idea.

Now, I’m not saying that non-fiction doesn’t have its place. Of course it does. But novelizing real life events has an inherent flaw, because reality lacks a satisfying narrative arc.

What’s a satisfying narrative arc? It’s the lovely, circular aspect of a story that writers painstakingly weave into their books. It’s the details planted in the beginning of a novel that come to fruition in the climax. The twist of fate that unites a hero and a heroine that have complementary strengths and flaws. The conflict that represents whatever the main character fears most and present her with a chance to grow.

They’re the aspects of a story that make you jump up and down, your heart glowing, and that leave you beaming after you turn the last page.

Sure, these things happen in real life, but rarely in the kinds of combinations they do in books. Rarely in the kinds of combinations they need to in order to keep a reader devouring your books.

A random anecdote from life is like a burlap sack, and a well-crafted novel is like a finely tailored suit. Everything fits. And sure, you can cinch a belt around a shapeless swath of fabric, but it’s just not the same.

Personally, when I was still writing about my own life, my stories never seemed to go anywhere. I would get bogged down in the true events behind the story, and I never knew how to push past them to make the story into something more.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I got the hang of it. After a wordless decade, I started immersing myself in the world of fiction again, and new ideas started to emerge. They were untethered to my life except in the details. I set completely fabricated stories in locations where I had really lived. I gave heroes and heroines jobs I’d really had. I incorporated elements of personalities of friends and loved ones into invented characters, but I invented the characters. I made up the scenarios. The real, embedded details allowed the imagined stories to come to life, but the realities of my mundane and unsatisfying life stopped restraining the narrative, hamstringing it to true events that didn’t really matter to anyone but me.

For me, the key to writing fiction that jumped off the page was just that: writing fiction. I had to write what I didn’t know.

And using my imagination was what finally allowed me to write books that felt true.

About the Author

Jeanette Grey started out with degrees in physics and painting, which she dutifully applied to stunted careers in teaching, technical support, and advertising. When none of that panned out, she started writing. Her stories include futuristic romances and erotic contemporaries, and almost all of them include hints of either science or art.

When she isn’t writing, Jeanette enjoys making pottery, playing board games, and spending time with her husband and her pet frog. Her most recent release, Take What You Want, is available from Samhain Press as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She blogs regularly at Bad Girlz Write and irregularly at JeanetteGrey.com. Follow her on Twitter or Like her on FaceBook.

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About Jen Barry

Author of Young Adult novels. Reside in Nashville with my husband, a gorgeous Irishman. Drink too much coffee. Online way too much.

4 thoughts on “On Writing: Write What You Know? Maybe Not.

  1. amberskyef says:

    I think ‘write what you know’ is the most nonsensical piece of advice ever. All authors write what they don’t know, as far as I’m concerned. My contracted novel involves a girl trying to become a nun because she believes that by doing so, she’ll cleanse the taint of being a witch from he brother’s blood. I don’t know what it’s like to be a witch. I don’t even know what it’s like to be a nun. All I can do is research and draw upon the human experience.

    I’ve never understood the whole ‘write what you know.’ I could write about real life, but even then real life is subjective, and I don’t know every aspect of real life. I don’t know what it’s like to be my friends. Heck, I don’t know what it’s like to be me because I am me and I think of myself totally differently than other people might think.

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