Sunday, January 29, 2006

Write What You Know?

I keep a yellow lined pad of paper sitting in front of my monitor. It gives me a place to jot quick notes of anything that I want to remember, not forever, but for the next few minutes, hours, or days, at most. When I fill a page, then then it gets flipped. Every so often I scan the pages and see if there's anything I really needed to keep. If not, then I toss it.

A week or so ago, I wrote the words "Extraordinary Rendition" on the pad. Why? I think it was just when I was reading a news piece. I don't recall. However, that phrase has been seeping into my subconscious for awhile. Finally, I decided I had to write something that had that as a title. I did some research and found a great quote from a former CIA agent. I pasted that at the top of a fresh screen and started to write. Yes, it was about torture.

I don't know diddley about torture except what I read about Abu Ghraib and from the work of a friend of mine who knows about such things. He knows who he is, so he can comment and let that particular feline out of the bag if he wishes.

I posted the story up on the East of the Web site for a couple of days and was told that my torture lacked veracity. Not surprising, since I'm not even a fan of horror movies. I asked my friend for some help and, man, did I get it! Even more than I wanted for this particular story. I used much of what he gave me and I'm letting it simmer for awhile to see if it turns into garbage or goulash.

Another comment on the original story was that I really couldn't write about such things as it should be conveyed only in first person accounts. I have to disagree. I wanted to ask the commenter, "so when did you own a bar frequented by prostitutes?" But, I knew that would be a provocative statement, so I just let it go.

I think I do have the "right" to write this type of story, just as much as any writer who delves outside their immediate existence for storylines. My message may even be clearer than a first-person account because I do not have the immediacy of the emotion. I can take a step back and decide what message I want to put out by writing about it.

My message is first political, but less than you might suspect. I saw it more as a modern retelling of a old story--a person unjustly accused of a crime. To illustrate an old notion that is still with us can only be a valid topic. We, as a society, fail to note history and will be forever doomed to repeat it. As long as we repeat the hideous failures, writers have the obligation to bring it to view; either through fiction or non-fiction.

I may not be the best writer for this task, but it was in my head and now is on electronic paper. Therefore, it is mine to have written. Otherwise, it would still just be a jotting on a yellow pad sitting between my keyboard and my monitor.


  1. “Write what you know” is great advice, but people often take that to mean “write only what you directly have experienced.” If this were true, there would be no sci-fi, historical fiction, murder mysteries, James Bond, or scores of other fiction works. All we would have is memoirs if we took this like too literally. On the other hand, where do we draw the line? Patricia T. O’Conner, the best writer on writing I’ve ever read (author of Who is I: The grammarphobes’ Guide to Better English in Plain English and Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writers Should Know About Writing), addresses this very topic as her first chapter in Words Fail Me.

    In summary, she says write what you know or learn everything you can about what you wish to write about. “No subject, though,” O’Conner says, “is so complicated that it can’t be explained in clear English. If you can’t explain something to another person, maybe—just maybe—you don’t quite understand it your self.” She suggests that before a writer starts putting words to paper, they spend some time learning about the subject inside and out. She also uses some examples. Melville never hunted a white whale, but he and Conrad spend years at see. “You can almost smell the salt air in their writing,” O’Conner writes. Dickens grew up working in a factory, lived in a poor house and clerked for lawyers. It’s no wonder he wrote about poverty, simple folks, and the streets. But I’m sure Dickens wasn’t ever visited by three ghosts on the Eve of Christmas. She spends the bulk of the chapter demonstrating that knowing some things, a theme or idea, help to write and describe others. Her best example is Anne Rice and Interview with a Vampire Here is what she says,

    “Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire is vivid and convincing, even though she’s never met one of the undead (at least, I hope she hasn’t). She modeled the vampire Lestat after her blond husband, and set much of the atmospheric tale in her native New Orleans. He writing comes alive because she’s borrowed from what she knows in order to create a fictional world that’s as real as the real thing.”

    Part of a story draft I’m working on involves a soldier who has an accident and looses his left hand. The protagonist, dealing with his guilt, has a nightmare about it. I’ve never had a nightmare about a guy losing his hand, but I’ve had nightmares and I’ve had guilt. Drawing on those things, I feel I can safely write about a guy having a nightmare fueled by guilt:

    “Hearing the news about Squats’ hand, I felt like a sh**tbag. That night, I dreamt about Squats, his giant legs, his new wife, and his enormous pirate hook. He hugged his wife and accidentally jabbed her in the spine with his replacement hand, paralyzing her from the back down. The stainless steel point sunk deep into his son’s delicate pink skin moments after his birth. He couldn’t even hold his boy. Later, at his son’s tenth birthday party, kids made fun of Squats, so he took a drag of cheep rum and jabbed himself in the neck, instantly collapsing dead as his lifeblood ran out onto the birthday cake. The children just sang Happy Birthday through it all. In my dream, his wife blamed me. I tried to apologize, but then she stuck the hook in my eye socket. When I woke up, I rubbed my eyes and blamed myself too.”

    Maybe I’m wrong about the dream. I did read that first draft of yours, and I do feel like it lacked “what you know.” But that doesn’t mean you have to know torture. To write a piece as you did, you only need to tap into fear. Everybody knows fear. Fear of something, even if it was as a child. Use that fear. Know that fear. Then, like Anne Rice, model the fear in the story after experiences of fear of something else. That’s all. Doing a little reading on the subject or asking friends (which is what you did) also helps for the little convincing details. I think you can write about such a topic and you can do it with some authority. You just need to identify the one thing in the story you know. Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s confusion. I don’t think it’s torture because you can always get those details elsewhere.

    I look forward to seeing what you have now. I’m sure it’s great.

  2. I should start doing a better job proof reading my comments before I post them. Yikes!

  3. And good comments they are, Bryan. Thanks for the response.