Today on the blog is a guest post by the awesome Laura Sibson. You know her from her blog, Laura Sibson: A journey toward writing dangerously. As an added bonus, Laura writes young adult fiction. Welcome, Laura!
Many thanks to the inestimable L. Marie for creating this series and offering me an opportunity to be a part of it. I graduated with her from the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. As I work toward the final draft of a contemporary young adult novel, Andrew Stanton’s TED talk helped me think more deeply about the elements of storytelling. The final point that Stanton makes in his talk, Clues to a Great Story, is to write from your experience.
I knew from the time that I was a teen that I wanted to write novels. The problem was that I didn’t think I had anything to say. It seemed that everywhere I turned, the advice was WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. I was a young white woman from a middle class family. What the heck did I know? I grew older, worked, married and had children and I guess by then I knew some stuff, but it didn’t seem to be stuff that would make for a good story. So I still did not write.
Then I got an idea in my head to write a story about two sisters who find out that they are witches. Obviously, I wasn’t a witch (maybe that’s not obvious, but trust me) but I did (and do) have a sister. As I wrote that story, I was able to infuse a paranormal fantasy with real sisterly love and real sisterly rivalry. Those aspects of the story were some of my favorite scenes to write because I could write them from my truth.
The next novel I wrote was about a teen girl whose mother dies. The main character decides to fight her uncle to keep the house that she’d lived in with her mom. My own mother is very much alive and I do not now nor have I ever had an evil uncle attempting to toss me from my home. But I lived for a time with my grandmother in the Baltimore house that inspired the story. Here again, I could write from my own experience. I’d walked those streets; I remembered the cherry tree in the back yard and the maple gold hue of the hardwood floors in that house. I believe it was the details from my experience that made the setting come alive for my readers.
The house that inspired the novel
The story I’m writing now is different from any other that I’ve written. A while back, when I read a scene to a group of writer friends, the whole room went silent. It was a good sort of silent. I’d moved the listeners with my scene and it wasn’t because I’d jumped through verbal hoops with my prose. And it wasn’t because I’d ended the scene on a suspenseful cliffhanger. It was because I’d written a moment of emotional truth. The situation I’d written was fiction, but the feelings were authentic.
Andrew Stanton shared in his talk that he bears two scars from his premature birth. He wasn’t expected to live. But live he did. In fact, Stanton said that the knowledge of his premature birth galvanized him “to be worthy of the second chance he was given.” In time, Stanton gave those scars to a tiny fish and he named that fish Nemo.
Stanton says, “Use what you know,” but he goes further than the old adage with which we are all familiar. “It doesn’t have to be plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experience.”
We all have scars of some sort. Rather than being burdened or shamed by those scars, we can take guidance from Andrew Stanton. Let’s allow those scars to inspire us toward creating work that resonates with people on an emotional level.
Thanks, Laura, for this fabulous post. Other posts in the series can be found here, here, and here.
For all who are reading this post, here are some questions: How has your experience helped shape your writing? How have you allowed your own scars to be shown in your writing?
Author photo by Marvin Dangerfield. Euodora Welty jpeg fromblog.writeathome.com. Nemo from fanpop.com. House photo courtesy of Laura Sibson. Truth image from pinterest.com.
Interesting take on the old adage. I write sword & sorcery fantasy, so I’ve never been able to lock in the ‘write what you know’ thing. Yet you do make a good point that our experiences can be more of a jumping point than the whole thing.
Thanks, Charles. You understood my point exactly! By bringing emotional truth to a moment, even one with swords or sorcery, we have an opportunity to connect with our readers on a deeper level. Thanks for reading!
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Thanks for participating in L. Marie’s series, Laura. I have to write what I know, otherwise my writing has no emotion or depth. One of my short stories, that placed both first and second in two writing contests, is about a man living with Alzheimer’s Disease. This story was inspired by my mother’s own struggle with dementia. It was a difficult story to write, but I’m so glad that I did.
Jill, I can well imagine how difficult that story was to write. We just lost my mother-in-law to ALZ in October. I respect your courage.
Sounds like a powerful story, Jill. The stories closest to our experience are the most painful.
Thanks, Laura. I enjoyed this. Your examples are spot on. Life is in the details, the cobwebs in the corners, the echoes of tarnished memories tap dancing over dusty hardwood floors. Writers bring ashes of the past to the surface, quilting tapestries of interwoven gilded threads. Our words, when real, create connection.
“Writers bring ashes of the past to the surface” – I love that! Like the phoenix rising again into something new and strong. Thank you for reading and for commenting.
Well put, Nancy. Having the courage to brush away the cobwebs and delve into those memories is another thing. Some stories are born out of extreme pain.
I’ve written a memoir and infused it with embarrassing moments of honest experience. So yes, I’ve allowed readers to see my scars. With fiction, it may not be as obvious. I wrote a novel about a little girl who’s looking for her dad. I never realized that book was about my relationship with my dad. My husband pointed it out after the book was published. I think I cried for a day. I was writing from an honest place, and I included lots of my own scars……..but I never realized it until he said it.
It’s so wild when that happens. I remember one of our teachers at VCFA saying that he didn’t realize his story about the dissolution of a marriage was about his own marital difficulties until he read it in a review! I think the revelation your husband noted in your novel is similar to what’s going on in my WIP from the standpoint that when I started it, I didn’t expect anyone to read it and so it came from a very unself-conscious place, which also happened to be very real.
I remember being part of that hushed moment when you read the story, Laura. Now that’s story magic!!!
Both of your books are so powerful, Andra. So I can attest that you write from an honest place. That’s not easy to do!
Great advice, Laura! I enjoyed reading how you injected experience from your life into something new. The whole “write what you know” dictum is taken too literally, too often.
I agree, Phillip. I think we can take chances sometimes and explore what we don’t know. 🙂
I guess I wish it hadn’t taken me so darn long to figure out that I didn’t need to take that advice so literally. Then again, I guess I wasn’t ready back then.
Thanks for the post, Laura. I’ve always disliked that advice about writing what you know or anything that smacks of telling me what I can and can’t/ should or shouldn’t write. The things I know don’t interest me and probably wouldn’t interest readers either. However, Your take on this–that what you know is the emotion that is within you rather than an occupation or even an event–makes much more sense. I too have had the realization that stuff creeps out of my psyche and onto the page without me really even knowing it at the time. I’ve even noticed themes in my writing that recur. I started a story a couple of times set on a turkey ranch (yup, I grew up on a turkey ranch). It is familiar and kind of fun to recall that setting. But I’ve never gotten much of a story out of it. It seems not to work as well for me if I deliberately set out to write something I know.
I remember a short story you wrote about a turkey ranch. I thought it was good!
Great post, Laura. Emotional truth is so important. Love your details about what you did & didn’t know in your own work.
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