The older I get, the more a particular piece of advice begins to resonate with me. It’s that well-worn writing chestnut: “Write what you know.”
I honestly have no idea who first said this, and I don’t have a clue as to the context in which it’s meant to be taken. All I can tell you is what it means to me, or what it has come to mean to me, which is maybe the same thing but still feels a little different in my mind.
Whenever I hear “write what you know,” I immediately think open your diary. Not that I have such a book. Nor is its cover adorned with winged unicorns. And no, it doesn’t feature a gold-filigreed lock that responds to a single key which I wear around my neck night and day. That would be ridiculous, and I am a serious sort of man. Seriously!
Getting back to the point, opening your diary means putting yourself in your stories. It doesn’t matter what genre you write or when and where your story is set, you’re going to be dealing with characters and situations about which you have an opinion. What better place to tell people what you think.
Inevitably there will be a part of you in every story you tell, but what I’m saying is make it a conscious decision. No more holding back. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written something and have thought to myself, “Oh, God. I know my mom’s going to read this. I can’t wait for that phone call.”
In the very next instant, I say “Fuck it!” Because it’s not her story, it’s mine, and she’s not the one who has to tell it. I do. So I’m doing it my way, and I want it to be authentic.
Opening your diary means more than just giving your opinions though. It also means working out your feelings about things, and putting it on paper for the rest of the world to read. It’s a kind of less-expensive psychotherapy, but more people get to listen in. It’s not just your analyst anymore. Oh, and her dinner-party friends when she plays the recordings she swears she’s not making. Them too. But you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You’re expanding your audience. Take that doctor-client privilege!
I encourage you to take the things that bother you, take those things that are most private and awful in your life, and drag them into the light of day. Put them in a novel or a short story or a piece of flash fiction, and use that process to clear the air a bit. Write about your spouse, your kids, your significant other, and especially mine that valuable vein called family. Lord knows we’re probably all screwed up in that department. Now’s your chance to take all those childhood memories and turn them into fiction.
Now before you rush off to write your biography, only set on Mars because that’s totally different, here’s a word of caution. Don’t replicate the people from your life and just drop them, unchanged, into your stories. You can’t do that. You’ll just be looking for trouble. I don’t say this to protect them. I’m trying to help you cover your own ass.
Start by thinking about this person from your family who will be, in my assumption, an antagonist of some sort. Take the things about them that really annoy you, those traits that make you want to put them on a short list of people to punch in the throat, and build from there. Give this “character” a different backstory. Keep the annoying stuff, but add in some characterization that also differs from the antagonist’s real-life doppelganger. Develop this character until you’re pretty confident that other people probably wouldn’t recognize who you’re talking about even though you have a clear target for your animosity.
Now you get to have some fun. Funnel yourself into the protagonist. Have him or her say the things that you’re too polite to say. Be bold in your fiction. Make the choices you don’t in real life. Take your revenge. Speak your mind. Give the antagonist what they deserve. What has, in your opinion, been a long time coming.
Write it all out. And when you’re done, sit back. Relax. Light up a cigarette, or however it is you choose to celebrate such moments. Bask in the glow of a scene well-written and the courage it took to battle such demons.
Then, if you’re lucky enough to make cash off that effort, you can consider it money well earned.