Sunday, April 13, 2008


Theresa Laws
HFC Member
Please don't panic. This is a blog about writing, not a recipe for committing a crime!
One piece of advice that comes early to every writer is: "Write what you know." So, let me think now, I know how to - what? I've done - what? I'm an expert at - what? When you think about it, most of us are average people living average lives. We're not kidnappers, bank robbers, or murderers. We don't dive into the ocean depths or climb Mr. Everest. We couldn't begin to know how. We haven't lived in the distant past and we have absolutely no knowledge of what things will be like in the distant future. We haven't had a hundred lovers, we haven't experienced abject poverty, lived through a harrowing event. And the list goes on.
Back in 1965, Jack Lemmon starred in the movie "How To Murder Your Wife" I was 14 and newly introduced to the magic of the big screen. Every time the movie changed at the theatre in my little home town, I was there with my dollar. Sixty cents for the ticket, forty cents for snacks. The thrill I got when I drew back that heavy, dark red velvet curtain and entered the theatre was electrifying. I loved the movies. Even in high school when my boyfriend and I went to the drive in, we parked on the front row and actually watched the show!
In 1965, the sensibilities were a little (OK, a lot) different than they are today, and in 2008 "How To Murder Your Wife" would certainly be seen as sexist and offensive, but for the 60's, it was acceptable.
Jack Lemmon played a party-hardy bachelor who drew a popular cartoon about a party-hardy bachelor. His big deal was that his character never did anything that he, the writer, had never done himself, and his readers knew it. Well, one morning the writer wakes up after a particularly wild night, to find himself married to a beautiful woman who he doesn't know and who can't even speak English. Now, in order to be true to his fans, he must write this faux pas into the comic strip. Fearing the end of his alter ego's popularity and his own livelihood, he plots to have the character murder the wife. He devises a plan and goes through all the physical motions in real life to be sure that his character can actually do the deed and dispose of the body. And, in the comic strip, it does appear that the wife is indeed gone.
As luck would have it, the real wife finds the comic drawings, believes he is really going to kill her, and disappears. Now our hero is charged with her murder and as they said in the movie review jargon of the day - high jinx ensue. In the end, after being put on trial and the whole nine yards, all is well and the story has a happy, if somewhat sappy, ending.
The character in this movie takes "write what you know" literally and to a whole other level.
How much do we, as writers, need to do this? We struggle with this every time we sit down to craft a story. We worry if Mom or Dad, Sis, or Aunt Edna will see themselves. Will they be pleased, or will they never speak to us again? If we are truthful, probably the latter.
Life isn't pretty, at least not when we are telling the truth, and most of us just have average life experiences to draw from. But that's what makes it so compelling. Part of the job of a writer is to draw her reader into the story, to put them at the heart of the action and conflict. To make the reader say, "Wow, I know just how that feels," Or, "Ive been there, I've seen that, I know just what I would do if I were faced with this dilemma" We want to make the reader look into their own lives, pull out the emotions there and connect with us. And, we can't do that if we don't reach inside ourselves and "write what we know."
In our writer's group, we often talk about what makes a story. We're fond of saying "A story is a story, is a story," which means a story can be set anywhere, in any time period, with any given set of characters, but it has to have conflict, believable people and emotions. That's where writing about what we know comes from. We've all experienced emotions like love and hate. We've all been frightened, worried, tempted. We've seen family member's and friend's strengths and weaknesses.We've been confronted by the mean guy with road rage, the conniving bum on the street. In short, we've seen it all and as writers we've stored it all away. When we sit down to write a story, then we pull it out and write about it. Writing can and should be very emotional work.
So, it isn't necessary to experience every little thing in order to write about it. We don't really need to go out and rob a bank to experience greed, fear, triumph. We don't have to jump off a cliff or drive a race car. We just need to tap into what we've already felt and witnessed. And, we don't have to murder a spouse to write about it.

1 comment:

Joy said...

Gawd, Theresa! I'm SO relieved I don't have to murder Edward to possibly one day write about it!

(Laughing!) This is an excellent blog entry and you covered the subject well... and in an entertaining manner. Am I in the least surprised? Nooooooo....