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On Writing What You Know
Ronald Andrés Moore
I have often admitted that the best and worst advice I ever received is the same as many other authors: “Write what you know.” This cliché abounds in creative circles as if everyone already knew how to untangle its web of enigma. The last time I received this particular gem of advice was during the spring of 2005. I was in college, and trying my hand at a few Theater classes, Shakespeare to be exact. I had been inspired by the whole experience and like many a fool hearty student, I took to writing.
A professor of mine took the time to read a ten-minute play I had written whose premise was solid, but whose execution was ostensibly very poor. He told me so. The piece was about two Russian soldiers during World War II digging up bodies from the thaw in Leningrad during the spring of 1945. He said my characters were stiff and the facts were muddled and threw all sorts of technical jargon at me, but he didn’t mince his words. I didn’t know what I was doing. I should have been “writing what I knew.”
This statement has hovered around me since. I hear people fling it at each other in those moments when they are unsure how to fill the air otherwise critically and it wasn’t until very recently, as I was tidying up the details on my gothic horror novel, NOCTURN, that it began to make sense.
“What do I know?”
Not a lot really. I’m your average guy. I like books. I am pretty well traveled and I keep up with the day-to-day, but as far as what I know, it would seem not much more than anyone else.
On the surface, we’re all very much alike, but there are details that make up each of our personal stories that set us each apart. Those details are the elusive “what you know.” For instance, like I said before, “average guy”; I’m 6’0, about 220lb, with dark hair. Not much more to look at than the next guy, aside from a big goofy mustache. Well, there’s a detail, not a particularly strong one, but it’s a start. “I like books.” I really do. From the time I was quite young, I devoured classical literature from Austen to Wilde, from Poe to Verne to Wells and Stephenson, later on in life, since “I am pretty well travelled” I was introduced, during my high school years in Venezuela – where I was born, to Magic Realism and particularly the work of Gabriel García Márquez. Upon my return to Alabama, where I was then taking college classes in theater, I began reading Faulkner, O’Connor and other Southern Gothic heavyweights, like Williams and Lee. What was I doing writing about Leningrad? Aside from a fleeting interest in quirky stories taking place in World War II, I had no real place to be writing about Russian life. I knew nothing about it.
But to say that I knew nothing would be misleading. I had read; I had traveled. The details of my life are that of the life of an immigrant, of a young man trying to find identity in culture. My life had been a ping-pong match of airplanes, back and forth from the Suburban South to South America my whole life. There are plenty of things I could be writing about.
Now, here is the nuanced part of what I am about to explain: I do not mean to say we should all write autobiographically. No, instead, I believe we should be writing –and creating—using what life has taught us.
When I began writing NOCTURN in 2009, I struggled with that jagged, hard-to-handle piece of advice. “Write What You Know” floated around enigmatically, like a buzzing fly, always irritating me, never explaining why. But it finally happened; I began crafting a piece of literature that came together using the elements of life that I had picked up along the way. Themes like “things are not as they seem,” and dual identity were very much things I could speak on and I introduced them into a magic world that coincides with my own. I was learning from Márquez. Bereavement, loss, confusion over sudden death, all became themes that spoke to my own life and exposed the grotesque realities of that life. I was learning from Faulkner. I began writing it and inserting the things I knew into small details and big story arcs because I knew, even if the story happened in the 19th century, I could speak with expertise to certain elements within it.
That’s what was missing from the story about the Russian soldiers. I didn’t know what they had felt and I was only guessing at their behavior. Writing isn’t about guessing, and if it is about educated speculation, it should be so from the perspective of someone who is constantly observing and learning.
In some way, yes, we’re all the same in some big way. That’s the fundamental thing that makes storytelling so important to us. But deep down in that big fundamental thing are the details, the “I was in a crash once on a Tuesday night” or the “Let me tell you what a Southern lake in Summer looks like lit by lightning bugs” kind of stuff that flavors those stories— that bring those stories to life. Those details feed your story; they bring your world to life.
On the surface we’re all just people living lives and dying deaths and the world spins on without us, but it is in those details, is in those “things you know” where we really get to see life for what it is: a great, beautiful story we can tell. And the most beautiful ones are the stories written from just the stuff you know.
Ronald Andrés Moore is a restaurateur and author living in Alabama. His gothic novel, NOCTURN, will be available from Before Sunrise Press in July.
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