Like most writers of fiction, I have struggled with that old chestnut: Write what you know. For one thing, much of what I know as a former prosecutor has been done to death. Even Law and Order has to rip plots from the headlines. Beyond that, to write what you know means to expose yourself, to dig deep, to remember things that happened, things you did, and to relive those feelings. That’s not always comfortable.
In a post on Writer Unboxed, author Robin LaFevers noted that “[a]s writers, we are utterly exposed the moment we put pen to paper.” She goes on to say that “even when we don’t intend to put parts of ourselves into our books, … pieces of ourselves still find their way onto the pages.”
Robin’s post got me to thinking about an essay I recently discovered in the Atlantic by author Bret Anthony Johnston who said he counsels his writing students, to their dismay: Don’t Write What You Know. And in the essay, he provided me a new way of looking at writing about something we’ve experienced. He said that he doesn’t try to recreate events in his past when he writes but, instead, he uses small details to evoke a time and place. As he wrote, “Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete.” That makes sense to me. Instead of writing about one’s past experiences, a writer can evoke details, memories, sense impressions from his past and then let imagination take flight.
Or as Bret put it: “Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say.”
That notion freed me to write a story I thought I’d never write – because it’s scary, y’know? – a story I’m hoping to publish. It’s about a high school student in the 1950s who gets polio and how the narrator, a boy who has a crush on her, reacts to her disability. I had polio in the ’50s but the story is not about me. The character was a senior in high school when she was stricken. I was about to start kindergarten. She lost the use of her legs. I didn’t. But I was able to remember a lot of my feelings about polio as I grew older, my concerns and my fears, and this allowed me to create this character. In telling the story from the viewpoint of a boy who loved her, an older narrator looking back, I imagined how these events shaped his life in later years. It was thrilling to me to use bits and pieces of memory as scaffolding for a story borne of imagination.
Anyway, the story is out there. I’ll let you know if it gets picked up.