Monday, February 22, 2016

week #7 Write what you know?

Should You Really Write What You Know?

        I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, as I am currently 250+ pages into my first novel for an adult audience that deals with a woman’s experience mothering a transgendered child. Am I a mother of a transgendered child? Nope. Should that preclude me from writing about that experience? To that I say “nope” as well. 

       I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the adage “write what you know” in creative writing courses. And I couldn’t disagree more… an extent.

       If one were to follow that philosophy strictly, then women would never write male characters. Men would never write female characters. Older people wouldn’t write about children. Most of us wouldn’t write about being an astronaut, or swimming the English Channel. And don’t even get me started on how this notion would wipe out entire genres of fiction: fantasy, gone! Speculative fiction, gone!

       But I do see a grain of truth in this that I hold on to fiercely. I interpret it as “write what I know emotionally.” I’ve never been to the moon, but I’ve felt lonely and isolated. I’ve never swam across the English Channel, but I’ve felt my fair share of anxiety and fear. It’s from this emotional connection that we as writers connect with our stories and are able to, hopefully, transfer them to our readers.

       So where then do my stories come from? This is a question I get asked a lot. 

      In the case of my young adult novel, Strays, there were three circumstances at play:

1.    I was (and still am) the dog columnist for the Los Feliz Ledger. 
2.    While doing research I came across an organization in Santa Monica called K-9 Connection that pairs at-risk teens and rescue dogs. 
3.    I had struggled with a dog with redirected aggression issues. 
       My published short stories had different conceptions.

       In my story, The Sound of an Infinite Gesture, published in Monday Night Literary, a trainer falls in love with a gorilla that communicates to her through sign language. I remember reading the story about Koko the signing gorilla and it made me wonder about language and interspecies communication.

       In Unruly, a girl’s adolescence is heightened by her hair that grows out of control and monster-like. Not only was this my attempt at reinterpolating the fairy tale, Rapunzel, but I also had a dream that my hair was growing out of control and a squirrel came along a snipped off some of the hair for her nest. To this day I keep a notebook by my bed, as I find many of the imagery for my speculative/magical realism fiction comes from dreams.

       Plush is about a young man trying to connect with his father, but can only do so in costume. A friend had told me about the concept of “furries” where people dress in costume – usually anthropomorphized animals. I had also read about “cuddle parties” where people pay to get close to one another. It got me thinking about the notion of having to pay for affection.

       Roadkill, published in Wilde Magazine,  follows a prisoner paramedic who is allowed to leave jail to troll the highway for accidents. This came directly from a newspaper article I read about the stretch of the 10 freeway near Las Vegas where there are so many car accidents and not enough EMT’s to go around so they employ local prisoners to help out.

       So, as you can see, in the examples above (save for the situation with my own aggressive dog) none of these instances has ever happened to me, but I did my best to access the characters' emotions by channeling my own.

       So, by all means, write what you know! But also remember to write what you don’t know.

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