In its way, everything we write reveals us. Not because we’re naming names, but because who we are—what we think, believe, and have experienced—comes through in what we choose to create.
Here’s an example. The novella I plan to publish later this year arose out of the juxtaposition of two very different elements. One element was my beloved Bonanza; in fact, the original version of the novella was created as fan fiction. The other element was my long-ago experience directing a high school drama club, where the kids were talented and enthusiastic and I was utterly clueless. Put the pieces together, revise the living daylights out of them, and voilà! It’s a lighthearted tale about siblings and community theater: My Brother, Romeo, slated for publication this fall.
“Write what you know” is often the first piece of advice given to aspiring writers. Many wrongly interpret this as meaning they can only write the facts they know, such as what it’s like to grow up in a New Jersey suburb or take violin lessons. Other writers suffering from the same misinterpretation reject this advice as too limiting. After all, they argue, what did George Lucas know about outer space when he sat down to write Star Wars?
What George Lucas knew was that as a child, he adored science fiction stories about Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. He also knew that he wanted to fantasize about space exploration. He didn’t have to know first-hand what it would be like to engage in a life-or-death duel with his own father—that’s what imagination is for. But his life experiences with science fiction, space operas, and similar fantasies were the jumping-off point. Pieces of his life became pieces of his work.
A friend who read my debut novel, State v. Claus, sent me these comments:
I could absolutely hear your voice coming through in Meg. While I know your lives are not the same, I was very entertained picking up the parts her life that were “you”. Cats, tea (not coffee), smart analytical mind, knowledge of the law and a very headstrong attitude toward life. I totally laughed when you mentioned the photo of the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, and the Bonanza marathon. I totally felt like I was in on a private nod meant for just a few readers.
(To clarify: this friend and I were part of a group who got together in Vancouver ten years ago. While we were there, the host-friend took us all to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in North Vancouver. Now you know, too.)
Other aspects of my life also found their way into my book. Without question, the easiest part to write was the trial. Over the past three decades, I’ve made or listened to dozens of courtroom arguments, and I’ve read thousands upon thousands of pages of trial transcript. Even though I’ve only personally tried one jury case to verdict, I know in my bones how those proceedings go. As a result, writing those scenes was a snap.
During the pandemic, I found my attention ping-ponging between the safe and familiar and the new and unknown. Like so many whose worlds were in at least partial lockdown, I craved the security of well-loved books and programs even as I felt the urge to explore other works, to bring new ideas into my world and my writing. It’s not for nothing that Julia Cameron urges artists to go on weekly artist dates to refill the creative well. What we see, hear, feel, and do has a solid impact on what we write, whether we reference it directly or merely allow it to flavor the piece. Sooner or later, we need to add new source material if we’re to avoid retreading the same tired ground.
The lives we live inform the work we create. The people we know and the experiences we have color our views. The books we read, the entertainment we watch, the music we listen to, the sports we play, the conversations we have, the people we love (or don’t), the animals we cherish, the passions we pursue, the obligations we undertake, the struggles we endure, the losses we sustain, the joys in which we delight—everything that makes us who we are—also makes our creative work what it is. Our lives and experiences are the lens through which we see the world—and through which we create a lens for others’ viewing.