As an unpublished novelist, I am careful when dispensing writing advice. What would I know, anyway? There is some advice, however, that is spectacular in its mediocrity: sub-standard writing advice that is like watching a rabid chipmunk and a flying squirrel on crank mating on your keyboard while alternately squeaking and grunting a Bach fugue in D minor. It is bad and hard to miss. The age-old adage “write what you know” makes me want to take a screwdriver and stab myself repeatedly with it, hoping the pain will take away the vision and sounds of the terrible scene before me.
I will pull out a common American cultural occurrence as an example: divorce. I married in my twenties and today I am, um, older. Yes. Let us just say “older,” shall we? Thank you. In March, I will be married fifteen years (I love you Honey!).
While I am a child of divorced parents, I only have personal experience with marital breakups in the context of a child’s eyes. In other words, sitting on the sidelines, a spectator not a participant—breaking up from the love of your life, indeed, the mother of one’s children is unfathomable. My brain just cannot go there—on a personal level.
How can I write about something so foreign to me? I can claim to have seen it up close, but not experience it. The question becomes, why? Why would I?
Why indeed. Take a lot around at the society we live in. Divorce is common. If wrote a modern tale of living in contemporary society, and the characters in my world live in an insular segment of America where the divorced are less common, this novel would be like science fiction. I might as well have been writing about getting into a space ship and breaking the laws of physics by traveling Faster Than Light. There are many people who do this and are good at it, and that is my point. If you are going to envision the Battlecruiser HMS Divorce with Mark IV Shrill Spouse Torpedoes (TM), you had better examine your world with a critical eye. You have to leave your comfort-zone and put yourself in the unfamiliar.
That, my 8.3 readers, is the why. In a Young Adult novel under contemplation, the main character’s parents are divorced. I can write about this in the context of my own experience, but as soon as her parents step into the story, I have to translate my observations of the world not familiar. I could cheat and make life a bed of roses for our main character, but should I?
This is where the honesty comes into play. Do not write about what you know; write what you are passionate about. As fiction writers, we have to write about what we do not know, and that, my friends, is difficult. It takes observation, analytics, critical thinking and empathy. If you are not observant, analytical, contemplative and empathetic, then your writing is flat. You have described a Divorce Going FTL, without the thinking necessary to make it believable. It made no sense, and why it made no sense was not obvious. Life does not always come with humping rodents on your keyboard waving placards. Write what you don’t know. I dare you!