Several of us Book View Café “staffers” were discussing why we write. Specifically, Amy Sterling Casil wondered aloud (as it were) if we wrote because we had that certain type of experience that caused us to sit up and take note, that marked us in some way, that caused us to analyze and ponder and speculate. Or, she asked, did the “condition” of being a writer invite these experiences to us?
I love that image of inviting experiences, but I suspect the reality is somewhere in the middle. Everyone probably has these deeply affecting (though often seemingly trivial) experiences that mark them to varying degrees or slide off their backs like water off the back of a dolphin. But I think that writers stop and take note—yes, literally. We take notes. About everything. Being hauled into emergency rooms, going under or coming out of anesthesia, hearing James Earl Jones’s voice saying “This is CNN” from within an anesthetized haze, flying off of a horse’s back … repeatedly.
We are chronic chroniclers of life, the universe and everything. It is a habit, a reflex, an obsession.
And that, I think, shines a light on that old writing adage: Write what you know.
We all here at Book View Café have our particular areas of expertise. Want to know about horses? Ask Judith Tarr. Want to know about tea? I suspect Pati Nagle (Patrice Greenwood) could give you the low down. Want to know about dancing? Chat with Phyl (Irene) Radford. Want to know about what it’s like to live in France? You want to talk to Chris Dolley. Want to know about scene design and stage lighting? I’m your man … er … woman.
But there’s another level (at least one) to this “write what you know” wisdom, and I think it is what contributes to a story and characters having what I would call “resonance.” Resonance, to me, has to do with giving the reader details—but not just any details, the right details. The sort of details that get beneath the surface of a character or situation and show the reader something about the character and their story that is true all the way down to the core of the earth because the writer experienced it.
I have always put a lot of the weird but crucial little details of my life into what I write. The female protagonist of my Interzone story “Who Have No Eyes” (which has been described as “completely disturbing”) practices being blind because she’s certain her sight will fail before she’s an adult … just as I did after my eyesight began to go south when I was in the third grade. I even included the embarrassing episode in which my mother demonstrated to the teacher that when I told her I couldn’t read her handwriting, I wasn’t being stubborn (at least, not in this instance), I was stating a physiological fact. My protagonist grows up and is cast in a production of “Wait Until Dark” (about the blind woman who extricates herself from the clutches of gangsters). That’s true of me, sort of. I was cast in a college production of the play, but there the story dives into fiction: I didn’t actually go blind during the production; I didn’t marry the director; and I didn’t give birth to a blind child. But my performance did prompt several reviewers and audience members to believe that I really was blind.
The episode in the “The White Dog” (a British Science Fiction Award finalist) has a scene in which the little girl makes friends with the neighborhood bully by speaking to his loneliness and sense of disruption. That’s something that happened to me in Morocco when my family was stationed at the Air Force Base near Sidi Slimane. That sense of disruption and uprooting is a common theme in most military kids’ lives. So is the recurring nightmare of not being able to find your house in a neighborhood of doppelgängers, but I haven’t used that one yet.
In my Analog novella, “Blythe Magic”, the protagonist suffers from a mysterious and devastating brain disorder because my oldest sister did (it turned out to be Mad Cow disease). In my short story “Dr. Dodge” (Interzone) Reedy Watson’s dad dies when he’s fifteen of a heart attack because my Dad did, and Reedy’s bewilderment over how such a wonderful man could have died of a “bad” heart, is deeply personal to me. I do not share Reedy’s preoccupation of running away from death—that part of the story I got from a homework assignment my agent gave me—to read Umberto Eco stories. That, too, is part of writing what you know—doing your homework so that, if you didn’t know a subject going in, you know it as the book is coming out onto the page.
it’s funny because many of these are little details that, in my fiction, primarily shed light on character and sometimes only contribute pathos to the story. In life, they were not earth-shattering or cataclysmic, but they were absolutely formative experiences for me as a human being and as a writer. Perhaps I write to explore and make use of these anomalous moments. Or perhaps I write so I will remember them. Or perhaps I write so that I can forget them, or at least assimilate them into a whole me.
This reminds me of a marvelous insight that Stephen King put forth in an interview, as I recall, in which he said that he writes horror because it allows him to walk up to his fears and confront them without blinking. Most people, he says, turn back when the fear gets too deep. But a writer needs to walk up to the fear and stare it in the face—maybe even punch it in the face—so that it slinks away, beaten.
That insight led me to write a story called “Hobbits” (Analog, 1991 / Hobbits, Halflings, Warrows & Wee Folk, Questar 1993), which expresses a mother’s fear that something horrible will happen to her little boy in the supposed safety of their front yard.
And that led me to realize something else—all of the stories I have sold multiple times, contain a significant experience from my deeply personal life. So maybe the takeaway is that the more we put ourselves into our work in a real way, the more it will touch people … and the more people it will touch.
Pooks (Patricia Burroughs) contributed this to the discussion and I think it’s a great ending thought:
You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes to learn. When in short, you have only your emotions to sell. — F. Scott Fitzgerald