As writers we are always digging around for inspiration or trying to break through seasons of writers’ block. Write what you know, they say. We all have a story or from which to draw experiences. Some of us have more going on than others. But a life full of drama doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. Some of my friends’ lives play out like a dizzying episode of Housewives of... But the stories have no point and are often senseless. Their lives are…just…well… full. A good story is not necessarily a chain of external events but a sound telling of the event or person rich with theme and driving forces.
Writing what you know isn’t just an eye witness report of what you see. It’s getting inside of the characters, finding out what stirs or incites them. What types of people or circumstances bring out the worst or the best in them? How are they getting through it and why won’t they give up? Give the reader a reason to keep reading. You don’t have to know a lot of people or even be well traveled, but you must have an intimate connection with the people you do know. You must be willing to suspend judgment or conclusion and tell the story unbiased.
Writers of well written short stories, well excel in this–the ability to walk into a moment, draw out its essence and derive a story. Let’s face it, every story has been told in some form or another. But it is our experiences and the nuances that we bring which will flip a subject as commonplace as divorce or death or sickness and suddenly you know you’ve never heard it quite like that before. It is taking a ‘what if’ this way and flipping it around to find the ‘what if’ another way.
It’s also important to know what we write; seek to find that connection that allows you to identify with a story. Several years ago I was talking to a dear friend of my mother shortly after the death of her husband. I’ve known her and the family since I was a kid. They were the sweetest people you could meet. I called her shortly after his death not knowing what to say, only imagining her devastation and loss. Instead of an inconsolable elderly lady, I was met by a woman who seemed liberated, relieved even, that her closest companion was gone. I kept asking questions trying to make sure I heard her correctly. I was trying to reinterpret what she was saying to what I thought she should be saying. After 50 years of marriage I had a pretty good idea of what she must be feeling; she had to be drowning in grief and no doubt unsure about her future. But instead, she kept insisting on things like learning to play the piano, going out to dinner more often. “He was a stubborn man.” She said several times. “He never wanted to go to the doctor. I finally said, ‘Carl, do what you want!’”
When the conversation was over I realized that her story was not typical of a grieving widow. This woman worried herself sick throughout his illness. She insisted he see someone about his symptoms but he blatantly refused until the cancer had spread and the doctors couldn’t contain it. Turns out, he’d always been obstinate, unyielding and often impossible. She carried the burden of seeing about him for years and it had worn her out. And now he was gone. And although she was sad, she was also free. And she didn’t have to worry anymore. She could finally let go and live, even at 71. She started talking about a list of “must dos” and the phrase “starting over” was mentioned more than once. We all knew him differently she insisted.
My experience with losing a close loved one did not parallel hers. And that’s O.K. It is what makes our stories unique. And then I thought about a time when I felt relieved that something was over when social norms said that I should be grieving or mourning. And that’s when I got it. And now I can tell her story because it is now part of my experience; the connection has been made. It matters not if I agree or empathize with the way she dealt with her husband’s death and it won’t matter for you. That’s not important. But, the fact is, I will know what I’m writing about.