7.29.2014

On Secret Selves and Writing What We Know

People have asked what my writing specialty is. Not specifically what is my genre (though I do get that question a lot), but more like what's my "thing?" What do I bring to the table that makes my work unique?


Folks in the habit of throwing around writing advice will often say that writing what you know is a bad or outdated tip, but the thing is, we all do it. Sure, sticking only to what you know is a bad way to challenge yourself or stretch your creative muscles, but I think we all have to start from a place of intimate knowledge, be it about a particular subject the characters are exploring, the settings in which they live, or at the very least a mindset they're battling (be it addiction, OCD, bipolar, grief, or crushing guilt). The personal knowledge we have that we share through our stories creates a sort of empathy between the author and the characters. That empathy is like the salt in your stew. If it's missing, the story feels incomplete, bland on the tongue, forgettable.

A lot of fiction writers come to the table with a certain amount of expertise under their belts. They may be cops, lawyers, or other government employees, so they they can showcase their knowledge of procedures and lingo, the inner-workings of government agencies, or how crimes are investigated and solved. Sometimes fiction writers have crossed over from the world of journalism, bringing their journalistic sensibilities along with them in the form of intrepid characters who might also be journalists themselves. Or at the very least, they will often write in a style that befits their training: tight stories that get quickly to the point and don't fuss with extraneous details. And it's the same with nearly all professions. If you're a soldier, you might not write about soldiers, but you might write LIKE one.

In other words, a writer will either explicitly or implicitly use their knowledge to demonstrate "this thing they keenly understand, and therefore you should keenly understand it too" and that is often what sets their work apart from others.

I, personally, am an expert in pretty much nothing. You will very likely never see a non-fiction work from me (apart from the blatherings you find on this blog), unless it's creative non-fiction. And I doubt I'm interesting enough to even pull that off. I have four collective years of college under my belt, but no degree to show for it. A lot of what I know comes from years of observation and simple research, or interacting with experts until I feel like I can fake it on the page. I've read more books and watched more movies than I can count, and I've developed love affairs with certain subjects and causes, but not a lot of it has made it into my writing. For instance, I love cooking and exploring the world of food, but I have no interest in writing about a chef. The idea of using any technical knowledge I might possess to tell a story just doesn't interest me for some reason.

What I do know, however, is people, and particularly how they behave in relation to one another. I believe we are never the full picture of what others see. There is always a drawn curtain hiding a secret self from the rest of the world. Sometimes even we don't fully know or understand our secret selves, and the process of discovering who that person is can make one hell of a story.


Our secret selves self may engage in thoughts and behaviors that don't adhere to the norms societies have constructed in order to feel safe. That's not to say I think we're all doing or thinking bad things, but I think we are often doing or thinking INTERESTING things. The people you pass on the street every day, the ones who fill your drinks or scan your groceries or patrol the streets to keep you safe -- all of those people live lives that you don't see, and within those lives, the people who know them best don't know them completely. Every single one of us has secrets we would rather die before sharing with a complete stranger, those things that for whatever reason our brains sometimes like to remind us of so we can feel bad for a little while.

Sometimes, when I'm sitting in a public place, like a mall or a restaurant, I find myself trying to tunnel into the lives of my fellow humans, to imagine their struggles and triumphs, their dirty little secrets.

And maybe they're completely mundane things, at least to them, but they all have stories unique to themselves, about the things they've seen and the people they've met that shaped who they are, for better or worse. Every single one of them. Every single one of US. And it's in that very realization where I find I'm taking the pulse of something infinite. People say there is nothing new under the sun, that there are only so many ideas out there that we use over and over again. That may be true to a point, especially when we're talking about HOW we tell these stories . . . but the stories themselves are forever unique like grains of sand.
I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist or any other "ist." I don't know much about planes or trains or automobiles. I've never been to war. Hell, I haven't even been out of this country yet. But I was gifted with a curious sponge of a mind with an antenna that tunes into the frequencies of certain people, to see them as they actually are, behind the veneers and the fancy window dressing. The marriages people keep up for appearances, but are actually falling apart behind closed doors, the sad old men filled with regrets that no one will understand, the desperation of someone longing to be free of the chains holding them back, the capering, mean little demons that live in us all, whether we acknowledge them or not. I seek them out. I sidle up next to them on the park bench, and I ask them questions and gain their trust so that they let me in.

And then I write down every ugly little thing I see, using vivid words so that you may see them too, and then I find an artful way to ask if this ugly thing looks a little like the ugly thing living inside of you, inside us all. And if you're being at least a little honest with yourself, you might admit that yeah, maybe. Just a little. But no one else has to know. It's a secret you've confided to the imaginary people living in the pages. And that's okay. I think that's one very fundamental function of art in general. We share our secrets with you, and you quietly pass yours to us.

That's my "thing." That's my specialty. What's yours?