by Toni McGee Causey
Write what you know.
That’s the big stick sometimes used on writers, especially new writers. The implication, of course, is that you’d better not start writing until you know stuff. I went for years thinking that one of these days, I was going to get to a point where I knew for sure that I knew stuff and horns were going to sound or maybe music would play or some crisp-suited pseudo-TV-host would pop up and let me know that I’d just won the ability to go forward and write. Then I came to the realization, of course, that other people were writing about murders (and one hopes not from first-hand experience) and writing about blowing up the world (again, hoping that’s not a part of their resumé) or assassinating the president (now there’s one to guarantee Google hits), and that’s when I understood that I didn’t have to know anything, and since I was an expert at that, it was quite freeing. Not having a clue? I’m so there.
Which is when I really examined that old piece of advice, the one that felt like it was keeping me from breaking through, and I realized, I already know what’s important. It’s one of those pieces of advice which can sound very limiting, until you turn it around a bit.
I know the sound of the crack of a watermelon rind as it splits open, juice dribbling down onto the table, and the sweet cold crunch of the first bite on a hot summer day.
I know the electrical shock of betrayal in the midst of utter silence as I see a boyfriend’s other woman.
I know the stunning incredulity of how one three-year-old can fill an entire bathroom with suds, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with just a little shampoo and a whirlpool attachment for a tub.
I know the chaos and terror of running red lights to get to a hospital in time.
I know the shushing, oppressive silence of standing in the back of a funeral home.
The thing I’ve been asked at writer’s workshops I’ve given lately is, “How can I write about anything exciting? I have a normal life, but I’ve been told not to write something so autobiographical for a first novel, that that’s the kiss of death. So what do I do?”
And my answer is simple: you know yourself. You know people. And you know how to research whatever it is you need to know.
I know the scent of an old, worn leather glove and the sting of a line drive ball hit across the pitcher’s mound.
I know the first strawberry of the season, picked from my paw paw’s farm, eaten right there as I sat in the dirt between rows.
I know the clink of fine white china as it’s set down on a glossy mahogany table.
I know the safety of my dad’s hug, the tears in my mom’s eyes, the laughter of my brother.
I know my husband’s smile, the sly one he doesn’t show to others.
“But how,” someone asked at the same workshop, “will I know I have a story? How will I know where to begin?”
Begin where the conflict starts. That’s where your story begins, and trust the reader to know that. This, I think was the hardest thing for me to internalize, was that I could trust that the reader knew that in the world of these characters, stuff had happened to them before this point. That there was backstory, that there were reasons for them being the way they were, and I had to break myself of wanting to put all of that in so that the reader understood them so that they would know this moment, this conflict was a big deal.
The conflict does need to be a big deal — to that character. But readers don’t have to know everything about the characters in the beginning to know that. They’re going to trust that you’re starting at the point where something in the character’s life has come to an abrupt, dramatic moment. Or maybe it’s a quiet, dramatic moment, but the point is, there is a moment. There is conflict. It may be internal, it may be external or some combination, but the story we care about as a reader is that struggle. They may not even overcome it, but if you connect us to their lives, to the little details that make them unique, we’re going to care if they try to win that conflict.
I know the feel of rain on my face, sluicing down my clothes, saturating through to the bone.
I know the joy in my sons’ eyes on Christmas morning.
I know the chaos of running out of time, everyone depending on me to get there, with the thing, whatever the thing was.
I know the rush of relief when I made it.
I know failing, the sitting-on-the-floor, stunned, too stunned to breathe, to form tears, to speak.
I know the rush of success, wanting to dance with the world.
What you know, already, is wanting something. You already know successes, and you know failures. I’m betting most of you know losing something that you never, ever wanted to lose, and the numbing pain that caused. That’s where your story starts: the character is going to lose something. And they care, deeply, that they not lose it.
So, write what you know.