Writer’s Craft #61 – Writing What You Know
Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.
Writing What You Know
From development to revision and workshop analysis, every story undergoes a technical process to reach its full potential. Throughout this process, it is important that authors write what they know. This includes learned facts, as well as individual beliefs and experiences that personify the language.
“Good writing is about telling the truth,” notes Anne Lamont in Bird by Bird. Her advice: jot down several childhood memories as honestly as possible. “Don’t worry if what you’re writing is no good, because no one will see it.” These rough initial drafts are merely a device for establishing tone, voice and honesty.
I once used this tactic when prompted to write from the perspective of the opposite sex. I recorded a few childhood experiences, noting how gender (in my case, male) played a role in memory retention. I tried to imagine how a young female might react to similar events. This exercise established a solid female voice for my story. While your draft is likely to transform a lot during the writing and editing process it is helpful to have a decent draft to work from. Luckily a resource for some of the best online Ph.D. programs provides a number of excellent tips for the drafting process, which are useful for those who are writing a novel or a Ph.D. thesis.
To achieve a truthful tone, the Purdue Online Writing Lab suggests addressing an audience. “Pretend that you are being interviewed by someone — or by several people, if possible.” This allows the author to sharpen their points and convey the subject in a truthful, thoughtful way.
I was assigned an editorial that argued for states’ rights, a notion I only partially favor. The “mock audience” method allowed me to focus on viewpoints I agreed with and disregard those I opposed. By channeling energy into writing that matched my personal beliefs, the editorial I produced was honest and effective.
Columnist Hilary Mandel recommends a detailed environment to define characters. “If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character” she writes, “it becomes, in effect, part of character definition.” In addition to research, the writer should draw on individual surroundings and experiences. A helpful exercise: record a few sensory observations, followed by similar passages from the characters’ perspectives.
I once utilized this tactic when asked to produce a story set in a randomly assigned country—in my case, Greece. I researched Greek history, culture and cuisine, and wrote phrases to describe pictorials. Using the same voice, I recorded some of my own memories. What I knew became how my characters saw.
Establishing truthfulness is key for producing a successful draft. Authors benefit by starting every project with exercises that enable self-discovery. When writers use themselves as a starting point, every piece becomes a signature product.