"Write what you know." -Mark Twain
It's one of the most famous lines of writing advice out there, by one of America's greatest writers ever to hold a pen. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most misunderstood.
What do we know, after all? I mean, really? If we only write about those things we've had direct personal experience with, where does that leave us? What about imagination, that crucial spark that gives life to what is otherwise just words on a page? If we only write what we know, is there room for what we can imagine?
I look at writing advice the same way I look at the Bible. There are two schools of thought. There's the school that insists on fundamentalist purity: every word should be read and understood exactly as it was written. And there's the school of informed interpretation, that holds there are multiple lenses through which you can view a given statement, and it's up to intelligent people to determine which lens to use.
I'm no fundamentalist, and I'm hardly pure, so I guess that leaves me with option B.
To me, "writing what you know" means writing from a place of truth. What is truth? Tough question. I'm no great philosopher either, and there are many kinds of truth to choose from. Emotional truth, spiritual truth, existential truth, whatever.
Some experiences are universal. What do your everyday experiences feel like? What kind of response do they generate inside you? How can you take those core vibrations and translate them into your writing?
Right around Christmas, my toddler had a seizure while my husband and I were out at a Christmas party. One minute, I was sipping Champagne, the next my husband was dragging me down our hosts' driveway at a sprint, saying he'd gotten a call and something was wrong with our son. The babysitter didn't know what. We drove home at breakneck speed, imagining the worst the entire way.
To cut a long story short, our son was fine- the seizure was the result of a sudden fever, and after a long night in the hospital, he was right as rain by the next morning. But that experience got me thinking.
I might never face down a killer, or be trapped in a sinking ship, or dodge a hail of bullets while running down a dark alley, but thanks to that experience, I know what real fear is. I know what it tastes like. I know what it feels like as it lumps in the pit of my stomach. I know the surge of adrenaline, followed by the quiet, deadly calm. Fear is now something I can write truthfully about.
Live mindfully. Find your own truth, and you'll find your starting point.