Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

What Do You Know?

My thinking on this post started way back in August, when Carrie Butler shared a comment made to her by an acquaintance. He told her, “You can’t write romance, you’ve never been in love.”

There’s a thread on Absolute Write called ‘Stupid things non-writers say.” This statement belongs there (assuming the guy is a non-writer, that is).

What Carrie’s ‘friend’ was saying was write what you know. Surely, you’re all familiar with that phrase. ‘Write what you know’ is one of those ‘rules’ that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s one that seems to cause a lot of confusion for new writers. If we follow the rule literally, what, indeed, would we write about? Only astronauts could write space travel stories, for example, and where would all those books about wizarding schools and dragon riding come from? No where. We wouldn’t have them.

When I first started working on this post so many weeks ago, I started to make a list of things I ‘knew’. It made me depressed.

Let’s see. I had a normal (for the time) childhood in a Long Island suburb. I went to college and drank a lot, passed with around a B+ average. I worked for a series of non-profit organizations in the environmental education field. Got married, had two kids. Started my own business. Failed at my own business. Buried both parents. Had two different occasions where I worked as a security guard when finances were extremely tight (and might be looking at a third stint in that field). I’ve been to Canada, and as far west as Ohio and as far south as the US Virgin Islands. That’s about it.

On the face of it, I might say, “well, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot there, does there?” I haven’t written a number one song or a bestselling book. I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer or saved a life in an heroic manner. I’m not sure if I’ve ‘changed lives for the better.’ There was a time when I was younger where I thought, ‘If someone made a movie of my life, my character would be a supporting role.’ All the really interesting stuff always seemed to happen to my friends. I had a good time, but other people always seemed to be in the starring role.

But as I thought about it, and as I wrote my ‘Ten Things’ post from Monday, I realized that I actually knew a hell of a lot more than I was giving myself credit for, and I bet you do, too. I know what it’s like to be in love (and to have crushes/infatuations, too). I’ve experienced the overwhelming feeling that comes with holding my brand-new baby in my arms, along with the frightening ‘now what?’ moment when the first baby comes home from the hospital. I’ve mourned the loss of my parents and one of my best friends, and sweated through tough financial times. These experiences are grist for the mill, to use a rather tired expression (fitting—I’m quite tired as I finish this up, and have to be up and on the road early in the morning).

The important thing is not to use them exactly as they happened—no one really wants to read those stories, after all—but to take the feelings that went with them, and transpose them onto other, more interesting situations. Jeff King, of Author’s Union, put it best in his response to Carrie’s post. “Writing,” he stated, “is what we want, what we know, and what we dream all wrapped in one.” It’s a brilliant statement that sums things up very well. We have experiences. We know things. We know more than we think. Take a look at what you’ve done, and see what you know. I suspect you’ll find there’s more there than you thought. Tap into it. Use it. And have a nice weekend.

7 Responses

  1. Brilliant post! I think the other Jeff is fantastic and that's a great statement. This is so true. When you think of it, most of us live pretty mundane lives. We're not out there diffusing bombs, time traveling, casting magic spells or performing any kind of heroics worthy of tall tales. We're just living. But I think you are so right about using the experiences we have had and most importantly HOW WE FELT about them and channeling that into stories. (Yes, what an incomparable feeling to hold your child in your arms for the first time–to be transformed by parenthood). For me, fiction is often an exploration of "what if" and it gives me a safe place to explore some pretty messed up scenarios and also some pretty cool ones too.

  2. Great post, Jeff! Sometimes it's easy to downplay our experiences, but it's important to remember that they allow us to feel things on a personal level. When we're not "writing what we know," we're translating those feelings into new situations and scenarios. That's the fun part. 🙂

    P.S. Thanks for the shout-out, and have a great weekend!

  3. So totally true! Which writer on earth has done all the thing she or she has written about? Not many, I'd bet. Of course, it helps to write about what you know, but you have to also write about what you find fun or interesting or exciting. Who wants to read about real life anyway. It's boring. So if you can write, write what you want to read.

  4. Thanks for the comments, ladies. I think 'write what you know' is one of those things that gets thrown around a lot, but is maybe not well-understood by people on either the throwing end or the receiving end. As they say in Pirates of the Caribbean, it's more like a guideline.

  5. Great post! I really loved this. Being told to write what I knew terrified me in school, when I didn't really think I knew anything interesting yet. This is a great response to that much-repeated advice.

  6. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. It's very easy to fall into the 'I haven't done anything worthwhile' trap. That rarely holds up under scrutiny.

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