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Why You Should Write About What You Don't Know

It's easy to write about what you know, but writing about things you don't know much about is way more challenging. It's also more exciting. Here's why.

I wrote a novel whose two main characters are lesbians. This confuses some people because I am not a lesbian. Because I am also not a woman. And because I am not gay.

When I set out to write my novel, Finding Bluefield, I did not expect my main character to be a woman, much less for that woman to fall in love with another woman. But there I was, a straight man hooked by these two characters, Nicky and Barbara, and their voices, and the story they wanted me to tell. As I ventured into unfamiliar-for-me- situations, my characters, Nicky and Barbara, found themselves in 1960’s Virginia navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous.

Column by Elan Barnehama who was born and raised in New York City. He now lives in Northampton, MA. He earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a BA from Binghamton University. An advocate for diversity and youth, Elan has taught writing and literature at several colleges, led community based writing workshops, been a high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, a radio news announcer, the writer for a university president, and a cook. His commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, online, and in newspapers. For more info, visit elanbarnehama.com.

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I couldn't be more different than Nicky. Nicky was a seventh generation Virginian whose family had farmed the same land for over 200 years. For my part, I am a first generation US, born and raised in New York City by parents who spoke with thick accents and gave me a name other kids found impossible to pronounce. Add to that a vision condition that alienated others, and I was a poster child for “the outsider”. But my character Nicky went abruptly from insider to outsider, harshly felt the rejection of her community, the unexpected exclusion from her family, and there we found common ground. But, while both Nicky and I were angry, a bit surprises, and understandably frightened, she was never ashamed of who she was. As a child, I was. But if I had given any weight to specific details of what happened to me as a child I would never have let Nicky have the correct response for her and for the novel.

I’m not sure who started encouraging writers to “write about what you know”. At first glance it seems to make sense. Why not write about what I know when I know so much? When I’ve done so much? When I’ve seen so much? But the writing process disproves this theory because the story is always better served by the narrative that could happen, that should happen. (Learn how to write about what you know, what you don't know and more by joining the Writer's Digest VIP Club—comes with a magazine subscription, Writer's Market subscription, discounts on books and more.)

At the same time, writing about what I don't know doesn't mean I can’t use what I know. I loved watching the first moon landing and there’s a scene in Finding Bluefield where Nicky, Barbara and their son Paul watch the first moon landing with their neighbors. It took me a couple of passes to forget the details of my memory and create something new. Something within the reality of my characters. Something I didn’t know.

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In Finding Bluefield I wrote about characters who are different from me by gender, race, background, and religion. There’s that risk of getting everything wrong. But isn’t that where the fun is? Making things up? Finding the truth in the unknown? It’s not always easy or comfortable, but I’ve learned to trust my characters and I’ve learned that the story truth is found in writing into the unknown.

In an early draft of the novel, I wanted Nicky to name her son Leroy, the name of her co-worker who told her about the bus tickets to the March on Washington—which is where she got pregnant. It seemed like a fitting gesture, a noble tribute. But it was a really bad idea and Nicky would never have thought it, let alone considered it. The mere hint that Leroy, a Black man, was in any way connected to her pregnancy in 1963 Virginia would have been had very bad consequences for Leroy and Nicky. Naming her son Paul after his grandfather was really the only name Nicky would have considered because she wanted her son to be accepted as a member of the community she grew up in.

When I trust my characters to decide what must happen, I give myself opportunities to stumble onto the unexpected truth, the accidental truth, the story truth, which is so much more interesting than my memory truth. It doesn’t always go as planned. At one point, I wanted Nicky to ask her friend Andy to marry her and raise Paul with her in order to allow her stay in Bluefield. Andy would have done it if I insisted. Clearly, this would have been a betrayal of Barbara and of Andy of Paul, and most of all, of Nicky. The novel would have been a different and it may have worked but it would not have been Nicky’s story. Instead, in that scene with Andy, Nicky portrays her panic, her naiveté, and her unconditional love for Andy.

Maybe the real distinction, and I imagine this is true for many fiction writers, is that all my writing is autobiographical—in that it comes from me—but it’s not biographical, because it’s not about me.

In the end, if readers are able to connect with Finding Bluefield, it’s going to be through the essence of my characters’ humanity and the truth behind who they are and where they are going.

The obvious question is how do I know what I don’t know? The answer is that I don’t. I just write into unfamiliar territory and see what happens because I know that’s where the answers lie. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I get sidetracked. If I’m lucky I find my way. But the journey, yes the journey, is always worth it.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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