I feel like I’ve written something to this extent before (though I can’t find it on the blog, so who knows where it was–oh, quick check says it was last week’s inspirational newsletter), but it’s worth covering again, and I think this time I’ll attack it from the other side.
See, usually my argument is that you can write what you know and not literally be working with something you know. For example, I can work on Revolution and still be writing what I know, despite the fact that I am not, and have never met, a vampire or werewolf. But this time I’m going to look at how we can take exactly what we know, and use it to our advantage in our writing.
Here’s an example. In one of my projects, the book A Rather Large Puddle, the main character, Jade, is in an uncomfortable relationship with her boyfriend. She recognizes that he’s annoying and controlling, but given her end of the deal, more than accepts that it can be her fault that there are problems. Her boyfriend has needed to maneuver around her more than is necessary, and she has not made the appropriate moves to accommodate him. The fights are her fault, and it is up to her to make the relationship work, if it matters that much to her.
…Jade doesn’t see it, as so many people in this position don’t, but she’s in a toxic–and occasionally outright abusive–relationship. The physical abuse was something that happened in the past, and that they have moved beyond. How can it possibly still be abusive? He’s made so many sacrifices for their relationship. Now it’s time for her to live up to her end of the bargain.
In the first draft of this, the relationship between Jade and her significant other is weak and barely touched. I didn’t go into details, I didn’t explain why they were fighting–other than he wanted sex and she wasn’t comfortable with doing that again–and as such, his explosion at the end is incomprehensible. He goes from horny high-schooler to murderous abusive boyfriend in a few chapters and there’s no good explanation of why, or for that matter, why Jade stays with him at all if he’s got this right under the surface.
However, when I started the rewrite about a year and a half ago, I’d just had a major falling out with a former friend–and suddenly knew exactly what it felt like to be on both sides of the line, when it came to Jade’s relationship. I knew exactly why she was there, and what the problems with her SO looked like…because I’d just managed to get myself free. Granted, my friendship had never become physically violent, but the emotional and psychological aspects were there. So I began using arguments that I remembered having with my former friend, and adapting them to the book.
This resulted in at least two things.
One: at one point, my teacher pointed out something that Jade had said that justified her SO’s anger/behavior. It took a great deal of effort not to take that as a personal attack. Because if she’d done something wrong, then she was wrong, and that meant that I had been wrong…and if I was wrong, then who’s to say that I should be writing this book in the first place? The truth of the matter is, there are likely faults on both sides, and if Jade is speaking from an emotional vantage point, then yes; she is likely saying things that she doesn’t mean to, and that aren’t going to be taken well. Her SO does have reason to be angry. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone is always wrong or right about a situation. It’s just the way life works. I’m still good to write the story.
Two is that when I turned in a portion of my draft for a grade, I had a note waiting on the side of one of the pages. My teacher was baffled as to why Jade stayed with her SO if he made her this miserable and uncomfortable. And the fact that I got that across–that there is every reason that she should leave and she doesn’t–pleases me. Because the answer, in the end, is that she stays because she believes that the problems are her fault, and thus hers to fix. It’s not that her SO is being a jerk, it’s that she’s being a bad girlfriend. And when you still have good times mixed in with the bad, it’s easy to dismiss the bad times as the outliers…no matter how often they occur. Abuse and toxicity are scary like that. I never saw it, until I was forced to. Now, away from it, I wonder how I missed it.
It’s hard as hell, though. I work on some of those scenes, and I can feel the anxiety and panic creeping up my arms and making my whole body tense. It’s difficult to remember that I’m allowed to write these words…and that my former friend isn’t going to suddenly arrive on my doorstep and yell at me for what I’ve done. Even all this time later, it’s still a worry that I’m going to run into her some day, and she’s going to wheedle her way back into my life, and I will be trapped again in that cycle of unhappiness. But it’s those scenes that I believe I am writing the best…because they are evoking that kind of reaction. Just like when you cry at a sad scene in your book, I take those panics as a sign that I’m doing it well.
So it really does go both ways, in the end. We write what we know, in one form or another.
Wonder how that’s going to come out in my writing next. It’s like an adventure. *dons a fedora with a grin*
11 thoughts on “Write What You Know”
I’ve ended up with similar comments in some of my stories – why does she stay? Why would she put up with this?
People do. I’ve never had good luck explaining it, even when writing straight from my life.
Writing straight from your life on emotional issues is harder, I find, to figure out the emotional justifications – I mean, if I’m writing a character and I say ‘this character stays in this situation because of complacency and a fear of change’ – I don’t really enjoy saying that about myself, you know?
Hrrrm, that’s a good point.
I don’t really mind saying bad things about myself but I’ve found – writing Addergoole – that if I didn’t tone down stuff from my own life, it came off as unbelievable. Um.
I’m reminded of how when you had three protagonists all reacting in the way you would – assuming teachers would not intervene, calm in the face of weirdness – people went ‘why are they all doing that?’
As per the “real life seeming unbelievable,” that’s actually something my teachers have brought up. Occasionally, you’re right–real life /isn’t/ believable, and we have to edit it into something that is. It’s a weird thing, but unfortunately “but that’s how it really happened!” isn’t a good enough argument.
Ha, yes. There’s something to be said for exploring one’s own knee-jerk responses to things – examining motives, as you said, and making sure they apply to the character and not just yourself.
@Rion – “Truth is stranger than fiction?” Trite but true, I suppose.
I should try writing someone so /nice/ that they’re unbelievable.
What I like to keep in mind when writing – or talking about – abusive relationships, is disproportionate response. Arguing for two or three hours with demands for a ton of groveling over a typo in a document. Hitting a child for disobedience. Someone leaves a dish out and suddenly they’re trying to ruin your life and it’s a giant conspiracy and why don’t you love them. It’s not that the abused person is being abused for no reason, most of the time – the abused person will do something a little wrong or a little annoying, as people do. But the response, with its fig leaf of a ‘it’s your fault’ excuse, is excessive.
Mmmmm yes. It takes me a long time to recognize a response as disproportionate, because my family varies between disproportionate and nothing-at-all. It took me a long time to realize my ex was abusive, because his responses (sobbing and threatening suicide over a small tiff, mocking (lots of it) over a typo) weren’t that different from my family’s, and I have similarly disproportional internal responses…
Writing those responses when I can figure out that’s what’s needed is often very cathartic, although my characters are better at actually responding than I m.
I was a bit of a bully in middle school, so I have a pretty easy time finding the correct mindset for the abuser. Bored, frustrated, sometimes lonely, and that ‘this person is here for my amusement and they are not being sufficiently amusing, this is their fault’ feeling. I find scenes I’m writing often make more internal sense if I run through them from that perspective because if the abuser is manipulative, then there’s a plan, and the plan tells you what they do to prevent the abused person going off script, and what the script is.
It’s kind of terrifying to think of it from that end. I mean, not that I didn’t turn into a bit of a Queen Bee in late-college, but the script – when I think about it that way it applies to so many relationships.
Welllp this story I’m writing is going to take another turn now. Things to think about!