Writing Truth in Fiction
Or—Write what you know.
I think it’s kind of funny that this concept—this age-old advice—is so contested by writers these days. A sentiment I find ironic, especially in the fiction writing universe. You know, where things are meant to have deeper meaning than what is presented on the surface. Subtext, my dear sweet sweet subtext.
So here, my friends, is the hill that I will die upon.
Because there is nothing more powerful than words that come from an honest place.
What does it mean to write what you know?
It seems that a good many folks tend to think of this phrase as limiting. Something that restrains us to only writing salesmen, stay-at-home-moms, students, lawyers, educators, etc.
But that is not at all true.
What you know stems so much deeper than the surface-level life that is posed, mall family portraits.
The things that you, or any of us, *know* come from a place of emotion. Where we carry our hearts, our secrets, our every memory. From losing someone we love, to never having felt loved. The things that we feel in attachment to the experiences we have collected in our lives.
Then being able to turn those experiences into fictional accounts is what writing truth in fiction means.
What is it about Harry Potter that captivated the entire globe? Not just its targeted elementary-aged audience, but even adults?
What the fuck does JK Rowling know about being an eleven year old wizard boy?
What does she know? (aside from being a problematic person, that’s not the point here)
She knows the pain of losing a parent. Feeling totally abandoned, unloved, and alone.
Thus was born the little wizard orphan, unloved and living under the stairs, no real place to call home, no love to warm him.
She knows depression. Hopelessness. A cold and bitter emptiness. She knows the healing power of chocolate.
Here is born the dementors, where you feel only the darkness, sorrow, and as though no happiness will ever be yours again.
Those are all very serious and universally felt emotions. Wrapped up in a sparkling fictional package.
Writing what you know is getting to the core of yourself. Eviscerating yourself. And spilling the whole mess on paper. Then sharing it with the world, your nerves still intact, and hoping no one tries to cut them up further.
That, perhaps, is why sometimes writing can feel so difficult. So slow. So stagnant. Because pulling yourself inside out means to confront your demons, bathe in the rising tides of things you’d rather not recall to the surface—but knowing that your work will shine if you do lends to a profundity in dancing with the mess. Let’s face it, writing can be pretty masochistic. But it can also be incredibly cathartic and rewarding.
I have a theory in relation to creating. Be that visual art or written narratives. This theory stems from the triangle used in photography. Where setting adjustments all directly affect one another and together capture a desired image.
My theory involves the same shape and idea. Creators need to utilize and practice building their strength in Observation, Introspection, and Empathy. And doing so will not only allow you to see the world, people, and yourself a little better, but also allow you to create worlds and characters with infallible shared truths built-in. So even if your grammar isn’t Strunk and White approved, you are setting a foundation for something more important: Connection. Creating a world and a character that FEELS relatable and real, even when there are blood mages and unicorns flying around, is a very special kind of magic. If you can manage to make a reader FEEL something. You’re winning. I don’t care where the fuck your commas are. Make me feel something.
Better understanding yourself and why you are how you are and do things as you do will make you a stronger story-teller (and probably a stronger person).
Writing your truths in fiction is freedom. Even in the pain that can be carried along with that. It’s letting loose all your inner demons and exercising them from your depths. It won't make the thing go away, but it may reduce its power over you. Or, if nothing else, you'll extend a lifeline to someone else who felt isolated in themselves.
Because, and like I said in my ‘About Me’ section on my home page, “[fiction] is that hand, that heart, that whisper in the ear saying, ‘Me too. I feel that thing, too. You are not alone.’”
In the same regard, listen to 'Judy Blume' by Amanda Palmer:
"All of them lived in my head, quietly whispering:
'You are not so strange'
All of those saying 'Amanda you know better
You are not to blame
The world's a frightening place
So go on and think how you want
You will not be alone in your thoughts
Well you will but you won't in a way
'Cos a girl thought it too in a book that the library bought'"
The things that we hold inside of us are not always things that get talked about. Hence so many “end the stigma” campaigns to normalize things like talking about our depression. But it’s also not always that severe. Sometimes those ‘me too’ moments are random or even funny thoughts about life or sex or pooping. Things we think so obscure and isolating or taboo that we dare not utter them aloud. But why else do you think the hanging-foot-off-the-edge-of-the-bed memes are popular? Because someone didn’t give a single damn about feeling weird and just wrote it or said it one day and then a tidal wave of people were like ME TOOOOOOOO! The dam broke.
Understanding people—utilizing empathy—means that you are able to reach in and understand a character who is not like you and to better allow them the space to act not as you would. You know, those asshole characters that betray and ruin things for our beloved protagonists. Or those who are experiencing lifestyles or challenges that we haven’t walked. Empathy has power. Empathy is dreadfully undersold in the world in basic human decency. So use it. Tell stories and make people understand. Make people feel something beyond themselves.
‘Write what you know’ is taken at face-value by too may people.
I write epic fantasy. I know nothing about actual demons. Hardly know anything about swords. I know nothing about alchemy. Or what it would have been like to live without the graces of modern scientific advancements. I was the girl that always had her walkman and a portable dvd player when our family went camping.
But I throw one of my favorite characters into the deepest, darkest pits in my created world. To be tortured and bled for rituals and demonic power. I have never been to prison, myself. Nor do I expect any these days to be like what this character finds themselves in. But that’s not the point. Because the situation was nothing about prison. Or blood sacrifice. It’s about depression. About finding yourself so deep and lost in darkness you have to constantly remind yourself that you are alive. That you live. That this won’t be forever. Even in moments when you feel defeated. When you look into that corner where you have your sharpened instruments just waiting for you to forget that brokenness isn’t forever.
Allegory and subtext are king and queen.
For instance. The Crucible.
Ostensibly about the Salem Witch Trials. When in actuality, Arthur Miller is writing about The Red Scare. But to have done so outright would have gotten him blackballed and labeled a communist. Kind of like what happened during the witch trials. Crazy, I know.
Science fiction, fantasy, fairy tales, speculative fiction, these are the genres that take real life events and twist them up so tightly with magic, monsters, and witches in the woods that you can no longer really outright see the inspiration behind it. My favorite being the Pied Piper and its implications of plague rats and masses of dying children during the epidemic.
Fairy tales are some fucked up shit, if you know anything about them.
But not everything subtext and allegory is left to the farthest reaches of the fictional plane. There is also the very daunting ways literature can twist and mold reality into hauntingly realistic stories. Again, a favorite tale of mine would be the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’
Riddled with postpartum depression and a gaslighting, controlling husband, the lady protagonist is stowed away in a nursery of all things, and left to slowly descend into madness, haunted by the confined woman trapped behind the twisted and barred patterns on that putrid yellow wallpaper. It’s compelling. It’s suffocating. It does its duty with words and narrative to spin an image of the life of 19th-century women. It resonates today with women, still. As marriages with bars on the proverbial windows still very much exist.
Not all of us are able to or brave enough to write about our truths in a non-fiction format. I called it a desire to protect the people that damaged me, in a Twitter post awhile back. So being able to wrap those truths up in fiction…creates escape, creates fight, creates possibility for redemption.
The truths of any fiction can be found if one looks hard enough.
Observation, is an endlessly powerful device. I don’t care what you do or what you create. Observing your surroundings. Observing other people. Observing yourself. The habits of creatures before the rain. Facial tells of liars. The look of confusion on a customer’s face. The tone of voice, body language, fashion language, stature, SUBTEXT that we all live and breathe and exude every fucking minute of every day. Being able to recognize and turn these things around and translate them into art. That’s power.
If for some god-awful reason I was ever to create some kind of curriculum for creatives, I would include a list of psychology requirements. Because better understanding how the human brain works and interprets information also creates a better understanding on how to emotionally manipulate them into falling in love with your work.
Ew. That’s a gross way to put it. But frankly, that is what we do as writers. Emotionally manipulate readers. Or at least that is what our goal is.
Knowing how the mind works allows us to dive in deeper and touch on things that maybe we never realized was there. And a good place to start is to write honestly. Because when you bleed on that paper, other humans recognize themselves looking back at them, rattling the bars of their confinement, heads turned upside down, looking for release.