What does "writing what you know" mean?; receiving form rejection letters
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: December 23, 2008
|I hear the advice to "write what you know." Does that mean I should only write based on my experience? |
There's something to be said for this very literal interpretation for that old adage. If you live in Seattle and have not left the state of Washington your whole life, your stories set in Seattle, Washington are bound to read more authentic than your stories set in New York City or Munich, Germany. You've experienced Seattle and you have the nuanced, day-to-day details to draw from as you write.
But we're talking fiction here, right? Sara Gruen didn't join a circus during the Great Depression, but her character Jacob Jankowski did in Water for Elephants. Robert Olen Butler isn't a female auctioneer, like his main character in Fair Warning. Those stories don't suffer for that lack of direct, literal experience. Think of all the books we wouldn't have if authors stuck to their own personal lives.
There's a less literal interpretation of this phrase that allows you to use your powers of imagination to their full potential to achieve a convincing authenticity. Perhaps you want to write a story about a woman coping with her husband's death. Your challenge in writing this, however, may be that you haven't experienced the death of a spouse. Does this mean you're not capable of writing this story? Of course not!
So how can you "know" something without experiencing it directly? You've likely had some kind of loss. That very human, relatable emotion—loss—is a point of connection. Work with that emotional core to imagine your way into the specific situation of your character's loss. Starting with that solid foundation you can imaginatively reach toward new circumstances.
And don't forget about the power of research as a way to reach toward what you haven't experienced. You may not have worked on Wall Street, but if you talk to people who have, perhaps tag along for a day, and read books about the topic, you can gain the kind of information that will help you write about it with more authenticity. No matter what your subject, you're bound to find plenty of information to give you the kind of detail you need in order to "know" what you're writing about.
Why do journals and magazines use form rejection letters? Wouldn't their comments help make writers better?
While form rejection letters aren't always a thrill to receive, they are sent most often in the voluminous correspondence shuttled through the mail (or e-mail) between writers and editors. Much of this boils down to numbers. If a publication receives hundreds of submissions a month, they would have to designate staff whose only task was to write up all those rejections. That doesn't include the time it takes for the editor to articulate thoughts about why the work was rejected. Personalizing every response would prevent editors from doing what they're supposed to be doing: putting together a stellar publication of creative work.
In many instances, the form rejection says just what the editor wants to say: your submission just wasn't right for the publication. Detailing why that's the case may not always be particularly helpful to you as a writer, either.
Learn what you can from any rejection you receive, particularly if an editor has taken the time to write a note about your work. (It does happen!) Use it as an opportunity to see your work through that particular editor's eye. But keep in mind there are other outlets for feedback to develop your skills, such as creative writing classes, workshops, and writerly friends. And keep reading the journals you want to publish in; it's the only way to assess whether your next story should be submitted there.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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