Friday, 22 November 2013

When Writing What You Know Is What You'd Rather People Didn't Know

It's a Writing Commandment so old it was probably originally carved in stone by Ancient Neolithic Writer (no doubt with his or her Neolithic mates rolling their eyes in the background and yelling "Stop messing about with that and come and invent the wheel or something!") It's guaranteed to generate debate - mainly due to how easily and frequently its meaning can be manipulated and misunderstood. And, if you're a writer, it has probably been said to you so many times that, had you written it down each time you heard it, you could probably wallpaper a room with it by now.

The clue is in the above title of course, but - it is "Write what you know."

Now before you groan inwardly and click away to watch YouTube clips of cute cats falling off furniture instead, this is not going to be another one of those 'What Write What You Know Really Means' posts. I am well aware that's been done to death already. We all know it doesn't mean 'you can only write about stuff you have personally experienced' and how research and using your own emotions can fill in the gaps for just about any subject under the sun and so that makes everything okay, yada yada and can we get at the coffee and biscuits now, right? Good. Just checking.

No, this post is taking a not-often-travelled side road that branches off from that main highway - although you can still see it through the trees. Today I'm chewing the fat about... *cue dramatic, sci-fi-B-movie-style music* ...when your fictional world and the real one procreate! You went and did that Frankenstein thing - and now you've got the hybrid baby-creature squealing in your writerly arms .

This is something that happens... pretty much all the time when you're writing fiction. Yes it does, because when you're writing about lives and people and places - even fantastically surreal ones - everyone has to start from a basic template, and that template is usually your own life. It has to be, because it's the only one you get given, in its entirety, for free. It's partly why most writers get better at writing as they get older; apart from clocking up the practice, they've lived more life and so have more stuff stashed away in their magic brain-closet.

 (It's also why many highly talented teenage writers get those slightly patronising looks from older writers who tell them they won't be able to write 'properly' about 'serious, adult issues' until they've got themselves a mortgage/had kids/complained about something and realised - with horror - that they really are turning into their parents. If you are one of those teenagers... sorry. I kind of get what they're saying - but don't let them clip your wings, okay? They're not right about everything all the time - and sometimes the best way to prove people wrong is to say "yeah, well thanks for the advice" - and then do it anyway.)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. The point is, when you read back any fiction you've written, you can often see where you've drawn on things you've experienced in your own life to cook up the meat and potatoes for events in your story; relationships, career choices, personal milestones - the whole pot noodle. And how you feel about that depends greatly on how you feel about certain parts of your life. And I'm talking in particular about the painful parts.

There are bucketloads of what you might call 'universal' painful life experiences. Being dumped by a boyfriend/girlfriend, the death of a family member, being the only loser in the room not invited to the Cool Club for whatever reason... the kind of thing you'd actually have to work quite hard to not have happen to you at some point in your life. For the most part, those things are reasonably okay for even the most sensitive little writer-flower to write about. The real-life events might still hurt, but often turning them into a fictional event in a book doesn't - in fact it can even be cathartic. And if people read it and assume this event must have actually happened to you, the writer, at some point in your life... well, so what? It's stuff that happens to everyone, so who cares? We're all in that one together.

But what if it's something traumatic and emotionally-scarring that, while it (unfortunately) has happened to other people, it isn't a universal thing that everyone goes through? Something in your life that damaged you so deeply you can't bring yourself to even talk about it?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "Well, duh! I'm never gonna write about it either then, am I?" Brace yourself. You might just be wrong about that.

When I first started writing my current novel-in-progress, The Renegades, it was, as far as I was concerned, a 100% fictional story. Actually it was a coming-together of ideas from two or three other sci-fi novels that I'd started but then over the years just left to fizzle out and die because they weren't really working. It's the first complete novel I've ever written - okay, it's still got to go through next drafts and edits, but I reached the end of it. I know in my heart that the only reason for this is because, right from the start, it felt like the story I had to tell. It didn't feel like something I'd had to wrack my brains about and plan and invent and devise; it was as if it just unfolded quite naturally in my head and I just wrote down what was going on. I never stopped to wonder about why that was. And I never, for a second, thought of it as even the remotest bit autobiographical....

...Until I got to about the last third of the story.

That was the point when a lot of stuff had already happened, in ways that were destined to shape everything else that would happen after it. I realised that something in particular was, inevitably, going to have to happen; something that couldn't not happen if I wanted to remain true to the characters involved and the situation they'd now got themselves into. And to write it, I was going to have to dig into deeply personal dark places that I didn't want to revisit. Use stuff that only a handful of people in the world knew about me - and that I had no wish to put 'out there' for all to see.

It was a genuine shock; I never even saw it coming until it was staring me in the face. What the hell was I going to do? I couldn't just chicken out and not include it; no matter how nasty it was, having it not happen at all would make no sense and the reader would know something didn't add up and feel cheated. I could go way, way back to a much earlier point in the story and just rewrite it all to go in a different direction.... but then it wouldn't be the story I needed to tell anymore. In spite of where I was with it now, I couldn't bring myself to turn it into something it wasn't - or abandon it like all those others. This story didn't belong inside my head, locked away from the world forever - it needed to be set free.

So I wrote those bloody awful scenes. It was hard, and it felt wrong every step of the way, but I did it. I'll probably change them on subsequent drafts; take bits out, tighten things up, maybe even (god forbid) add bits in. But I'm resigned to the fact that those scenes have to be there, whether I like it or not. I've also since read Draft One in its entirety, and realised there are other parts of the story that draw on darker patches in my life as well. It's still a long way from being an autobiography (I can honestly say I've never lived in a post-oil-crisis New York in the year 2044, for starters) but it's still the closest I've ever come to doing that Hemingway thing of bleeding onto the page.

So, for any writers out there who find themselves in a similar situation, I'm hoping that reading this will reassure you that a) you're not alone and b) you can get through this. Here are some of the things those negative little voices might say, and the best responses I can think of for them:

1. "Everyone will ask me if this really happened to me" - yeah, they might - and if you don't want to put that information out there that can be scary. You can tell them the truth if you feel up to it. Or you can lie. Or fudge it and just tell them it's a novel, and novels are found in the fiction category. Your story, your choice.

2. "I shouldn't be writing about this - it's wrong to put such an awful thing into a fiction story" -  awful things happen in made-up stories as well as in real life; it's unlikely you're writing about something that's never been written about before. And this is more awful to you because it's personal to you. Other people won't feel the same way you do, because their experience of it - if they even have any - will be different.

3. "It's just a sneaky, self-indulgent form of therapy" - it might ultimately prove to have some sort of therapeutic effect. But if the end product is also a well-written story that people enjoy reading, how is that sneaky or self-indulgent? And do you honestly think you'd be the only writer ever to have exorcised their demons in their work? That it's something great writers would never ever do - great writers like... ooh, I don't know - Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Tolkien, Johnathon Swift, Sylvia Plath, for example?

4. "It's going to look like I put it in there just to get attention/publicity" - to repeat the sentiments in  point 2, it's unlikely you'll be writing about something that's never been written about before. Besides, unless you've written it in such a way that the scene just leaps up out of nowhere, with no inevitable build-up and completely out of context with the scenes just before and after it (and if you have, that's a problem with the writing, not the subject matter) people will accept that the scene is there because it needs to be, and not just slapped in as a cheap gimmick to sell your book.

5. "People might say in disgust 'Oh god, not ANOTHER one of those books with [insert controversial subject here] in it!'" - well... yeah, they might. That's because people have likes and dislikes, and they're all different. Remember that thing about 'you can't please all of the people all of the time?' Well, that'll be them. No-one on the the planet, in the entire history of the universe, has ever written a book that every human, living or dead, unanimously liked. Can't be done, chum. So don't write your story for them. Write it for the other chunk of the human race who don't feel that way.

Writers feel. Writers bleed. That's how they roll, and - no matter how much it hurts - they're at their best when it's how they write, because it's honest writing. Readers appreciate and connect with honesty - even in a work of fiction. Heck - especially in a work of fiction. It's the golden thread that weaves through the entire garment and holds it all together. So don't be afraid to feel - and don't be afraid of others seeing you feel in the words you write.

Because if you've done it right, they won't be thinking about how you're feeling it anyway.

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