Chapbook coming soon

Write What You Know

by Roy D Schmidt —

Last week I dug out an ancient, unfinished story about an office flirtation that escalates, eventually compelling two infatuated characters to pursue a secret rendezvous. The story explores issues of friendship, professionalism, romance, emotional intimacy, marital infidelity, betrayal, and regret. I have personal experience with all of these, direct or indirect, but none of the events in the story actually happened to me.

On my long run I pondered whether I was fit to write this story. I’ve seen statistics about how many people around us are having secret dalliances, joining the mile high club, enjoying romances at the gym. I’m either blind, naïve, or incredibly unlucky (or lucky!), because this stuff never happens to me.

Between hills, when I was able to breathe, I asked myself, “Self? How is it you’ve come to think you’re qualified to write this story? Aren’t you only supposed to ‘write what you know’?”

“Self,” I replied, “I’ve already written the first draft, so please don’t make me throw it out! My instinct tells me I’m qualified.”

“OK, fine. Justify your answer,” my self said to myself.

I quit talking and began justifying.

At its heart, fiction writing is essentially, admittedly making stuff up. We’re crafting tales out of our imagination. At the same time, we are enhancing them with our experiences, memories, observations, and judgments of the world around us. These various forms of knowledge take care of the specifics: I can’t outrun a Shih Tzu, but I can trick one; kale is nutritious, so I bought a bunch, but I didn’t like it; ten was a magical age for me. The direct knowledge stockpiled in our brains gives us what we need to show (yes, as in “show, don’t tell”) and to describe with authentic details.

On the other hand, it is imagination that takes care of the general.

Writing what you know does not mean to write only based on your direct experience. It means to be genuine. Even using your imagination is a form of “writing what we know” – if it comes from the heart. A great story often comes from a burning “what if” question that keeps the writer awake at night. “What if,” I asked myself, “two co-workers, both of whom were married, fell into a flirtation that pulled them inexorably toward the typical climax?” (The unintended pun itself pulled me out of bed at two a.m. to start scribbling in my notebook.)

I’ve spent decades in the office and had friendships and debatably even flirtations with dozens of friends, both female and male. I’ve seen it happen around me. So I found the question compelling. Asking it, and using my imagination, was already writing what I knew.

Still, I had to set the scene and create the characters, give them action and dialog, and plot a realistic story – all when I had not directly lived through this particular story. The only hurdle was a vague concern that it would be dishonest if I wasn’t writing 100% based upon what I had directly experienced.

On a safe, flat stretch of road, I did a little hop and cleared that virtual hurdle. “Just write!” I said aloud. There would be so much in my story that I did know. Everything genuine would completely overshadow anything I had to fabricate.

The male character was a mash-up of men I’ve known: some young, some straight, some flirtatious, some introverted, and even a bit of myself. The female character was a similar amalgamation of women co-workers – including one or two I had once had a little crush on, and, again, even a bit of myself. (Write what you know…!) Workplace setting and details were easy, and I have certainly had a few too many, since the pandemic, virtual meetings.

Throughout the usual iterative rewriting process, besides correcting the grammar and killing adverbs, I paid special attention to authenticity. The things I knew: was I using them accurately? The things from my imagination: was I basing them on concepts I comfortably understood? Were there any passages that felt false or forced or less than genuine? By the end, I felt comfortable the story rang true, through and through, to myself and to life in general.

What did I learn in the process?

  • On what I don’t know: It needs to come from my imagination, and my only concern is to make sure it comes from a place of genuineness. My imagination lends itself to plot (“What would happen if…?”), to overall setting (the third planet from the central star of a solar system just like ours), to summaries and generalities (they took a taxi from the office to the hotel, and found a seat at the restaurant). Imagination provides the overall picture, like the elements of an impressionist painting that stand out when it is seen from across the room.
  • On what I do know: It comes from the experiences, memories, and observations that clutter up my brain like that of any other writer. The literal things I know lend themselves to details, to specifics, to actions, dialog, gestures, scenes. They give realism to my stories. They are the tiny brush strokes of that impressionist painting, the ones you see when you examine it up close.

On three possible levels of knowing:

  • Literal: There are many, many things I know, literally, and could use them as interesting details in any story. I don’t need to hoard them or save them for the perfect placement. The Well will produce as many as I ever need (how amazing it feels to sit outside in a light, forty-degree breeze after spending an hour in a hot sauna; what it feels like to trip while trail running and fall on my face).
  • Understood: There are other things I know of, understand, and can imagine and legitimately describe (I play drums and I listen to music like a student; without ever having been a member of the band Journey, I could describe the experience of playing a concert with them).
  • Not Known: There are some things I know nothing about. Unless I want to do a lot of research – and train for the 800m run – it’s best to pick a different topic (life at the Olympic Village for the members of team USA; the social experience of people of races or cultures other than mine; reality vs. what’s portrayed on television).

The overarching message, of course, is the same one to which we will return again and again: Just Write! It’s the “write” in “write what you know”, and the “know” is everything and anything that’s in your head and in your heart. Just Write! Get it down on paper. Readers are insatiable. They want both new, original stories and timeworn tales told a thousand times before, if they have your honest voice, your compelling ideas, your controversial judgments, your unique perspective, and the authenticity of what you know.

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