Here’s an interesting take on “writing what you know.” In the June 11, 2013 issue of The New York Times, author Sarah Jio writes about how one night of abject terror helps her to write about fear. For the first time, in this essay, she writes about that night and goes on to explain how the memory of the terror she felt helps her write about fear that occurs in other contexts.
During most of my writing life, I’ve been given the same advice–“Write what you know”–albeit with a twist now and then–“Write what you want to know.” Jio’s essay now gives me another way to think about writing. I was starting to wonder why the theme of loneliness runs through so much of my writing. It’s an existential loneliness born out of people growing apart or never really being together in the first place. It’s a loneliness that comes from never feeling you belong, no matter your DNA, no matter the size of your family, no matter how many friends you have on Facebook. It’s a loneliness I’ve sensed in other people, sensed to the point where I would want to weep for them. It’s a loneliness that I’ve felt as a child and again as an adult. It’s acute, it’s chronic, it may never fully leave me and it can at times be terrifying.
Like Jio, I only revisit those painful feelings when I’m trying to write about them; otherwise, I don’t want to remember. That is the catharsis of writing: even though I may not want to remember, when I get in touch with those awful feelings and let them flow from my heart, through my fingers, to the keyboard, there is a sense of relief and even gratitude that I can do something with those feelings of loneliness and fear. Writing helps me to make sense of them, to understand how loneliness can drive someone to do things he or she would not otherwise do. Ultimately, writing from those feelings helps me to understand the people (characters) that live in my head. Once I let them go (and out onto the page), I feel lighter in my heart and stronger in my mind.
And, how about you, Dear Writer? Are there events in your life that you turn to over and over again to inform your writing? Do you, as Jio advises, “write what frightens you, haunts you, even”?