Wednesday, July 21, 2010

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW...and don't know

"Write what you know."

We hear that common adage a lot and while I think it is such great advice for students and authors alike, I find myself wondering: but what if what you know is not the story you want to write? What if your life is actually the stuff other people's imagined stories are made of and all you used to dream of when your life hit those heart-wrenching parts of the "arc" was...the anti-life?

Been there. Writing that.

Those of you who have stood beside me through some of the hardest times in my life know. But only some of it. Honestly, telling people was as hard as writing about it. I couldn't bear (and bare) telling any one person all of the stories of my life. But, I couldn't not tell it either. My advice to friends going through tough times used to include the occasional eyebrow quirking comment that sounded a little too-knowledgeable, my journals used to have a hidden back story that hinted at baggage, and my short stories had an "underlying message" that used to peg it as mine in my fiction writing classes. All of it a little angry.

And I had the right to be angry. Parts of my life were awful. So what did I do? I started writing stories that made me feel better.

Escapist stories--they aren't just for the reader.

But even as I put pen to paper now, many years after those life stories I used to "escape" from through writing, I still find that I can't not tell those stories of my life. They're in there. I haven't escaped them. While the novel I write might not be the tear-jerking novels out there that sound remarkably like my actual life, it doesn't mean I'm not in there or that I'm not writing what I know. Trust me, when I was going through those tough times in my life, the anti-life was what I knew...where I would go...why I'm still here.

So when I hear, "You should write a novel about all the stuff you endured in your life," my reply is that I can write one filled with all the things I didn't have and still be telling my story. My escapist stories still have my life in it, just with a twist, and always with the telltale things that peg it as an anti-life original.
  • Strong heroines that kick-ass because I couldn't fight back? --> Check!
  • Bullies and abusers getting their just rewards? --> Double-check!
  • Different kinds of "brilliant" characters, even the streetsmart-got-crappy-grades-until-I-4.0'd-all-through-college-to-get-the-PhD-that-shocked-everyone sort? --> Check! (With a hell-yeah)
  • Happier endings to different chapters than I had myself? --> Resounding Check!
And the list goes on.

Yes, I could write the super angsty stories that I teach in my adolescent literature courses or the beautiful novels I cry through in one sitting without coming up for air, but honestly, the writer in me still remembers the writer I used to be--the girl who dreamed up the wondrous stories unlike what was going on in her life.

That was what I knew as a writer then. That is what I write as an aspiring author now.

And believe me, escapist stories can get mighty good when the author really had some escaping to do.

Now, there are those that say: "But you went through so much, don't you want others to learn from your story? Don't you want to talk about how you got through? What about all those who helped you?"

Three questions with three very different answers.

1) Sure I do, and they can still learn even if my stories are happier than my life had been. Truly. Just as my life is always there in my writing, as a reader, your lives and perceptions will be too. You will take away from a story exactly what is in you to take away from it. This is why one of my best friends found himself inexplicably choked up through Jersey Girl (Kevin Smith's one).

2) No. Maybe. Waaait, I think I do. Hmmm...I'll get back to you on that after you read my stuff. If you really don't see the triumph of "getting through," I'll sit with you and tell you my life story.

3) Ahhh, now that last one gets my tears going. It would be an outright lie to say my novels didn't pay homage to every one of those people who extended their hand to help me up when I was curled on the ground, who were my wall to lean on when I couldn't stand on my own. Maybe they don't have a character and a name like in a memoir but know that each of them are as a part of my story--both in life and on paper--as I am. Where do you think I learned to have that hope you see in my novels and in life? (Believe me, being an aspiring writer is all about hope. *grin*)

Upon more reflection, that third question now has me thinking about the one thing that perhaps may be missing from my stories of anti-life. At least in the "real life" sense it deserves to be.

Well, the internet doesn't have blogs for nothing so here goes:

While you won't ever have your names in a memoir of surviving tough times...while you won't ever read one of my characters and see the exact part you played in my life...and while your actions may not be placed on that literary pedestal that they have every right to be on...
  • Those of you who were the first to break the cruelly issued "don't talk to that girl" rule, ending the six weeks of utterly friendless, wrist-slicing silence I went through at the start of my seventh grade year;
  • Those who were my silent rock through the abuse you knew about and even more so the abuse you knew to be there even though I'd never uttered the words;
  • Those of you who were there to pick up the pieces after I was raped;
  • Those who actually saw me truly scared when I first found out about my brain condition;
  • And finally, to that one person who, knowing more than all of these people combined, still chose me, giving me my first real happy ending to a chapter and the start of many others since...
Know that I do truly thank you.

You all are "what I know" also.


  1. Wow, just wow. Amazing, moving post from a strong, beautiful person.

  2. Nina,
    I had no idea that all of this was in your past. You are so brave for sharing all of this. My favorite line: "Escapist stories...they aren't just for the reader." YES! Thank you for this wonderful post.

  3. This one post has given me so much strength. Thank you.

  4. Aw, thanks guys.

    Gena--I've only just met you but I know you to be strong and beautiful also so I take this as a great compliment.

    Sydney--I always wonder if my friends would be mad after finding out things I never told them. I'm glad you're not. *grin* Yay! That's one of my favorite lines too! Big hugs right back at you, sweetie.

    Sarah--I am so glad! I hope you know that your story of getting an agent gave me strength as well. I still remember your posts back from absolutewrite. I can wait to read your novels in the bookstores!

  5. Lord, stories like these just break my heart. I have a few friends who've gone through some of what you've triumphed over. It was rough. You, my dear girl, are simply amazing. If you ever need to talk, you have my email. Anytime. Always.

  6. Jon, you are SUCH a prince!
    The offer definitely goes both ways.
    (= Nina

  7. To all my twitter & livejournal friends. Big hugs at you all also for your e-hugs,e-support, and just plain being e-fabulous.