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Writing what we don’t know

Musing today on that sage advice, write what you know.  Sounds like a good idea, but is it?

Not if we take it too literally. We don’t write to record what we’ve done or re-imagine what we’ve done. It could be argued that we write to experience something vicariously. And these events or experiences might be quite new to us.

Like many fiction writers, you may–like me–have a boring life. We keep our lives uneventful so that nothing will get in the way of writing. (Maybe this in itself should warn off aspiring writers. Write novels, and you will shun the world.) E.L. Doctorow said in a recent interview in the Paris Review that “A writer’s live is so hazardous that anything he does is bad for him.” Experiences are not good. They take you away from writing.

Doctorow’s was an outrageous statement. Meant, I think, to make us question our assumptions about writing. Look closely, and there’s truth to found there.

Of course we do mine our experiences, but for the most part they are emotional experiences. As writers we experience emotions that are universal. Each of us has experienced an incredible variety of emotions. As writers, our job is to imagine such emotions hitting characters more deeply than these emotions may have visited us. It is the writer’s special talent to empathize with people–whether they are male or female, similar to us or dissimilar–and to imagine their lives. I can write about a soldier in Flanders in WWI, if I have experienced suffering and death (and am willing to do the factual research), and I can write about about a Victorian woman’s quest for power if I have ever been thwarted in a deep desire.

In our writing we make use of our practical experiences, of course. But quite often these are extras: returning a serve in tennis, saddling a horse, birthing a child.

The rest is the exploration of the imagined place, person and specific feeling. And we will know it as we write it.


Dear readers and friends,

My blog is changing. I’ll be sharing more personal perspectives on the writing life rather than teaching fiction. I find that I need to commit more time to my writing, and some things, alas, must go.  It’s exciting to have a new book coming out, and of course, the next one’s under way. They’ll now get more of my attention.  I hope you’ll still drop by and catch some of my musings on the writing life and, soon, some insights into my latest book.  With many thanks–Kay


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