J’adore Shakespeare! It’s true. I don’t even know the why of it. I just do. It started with Romeo & Juliet, but I think it really took hold with Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. Or maybe the foundation was solidified with The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing. I don’t know. I love so many of his works. He’s up there with Mark Twain, for me. Funny, poignant, intelligent and not condescending.
This brings me to the Hamlet quote I pseudo-referenced in the title:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
In writing, it truly is important to be true to one’s self. Your output is a reflection of your soul. This is absolutely true for fiction writers, too.
There has always been debate about how much of our true selves we inject into our fictional creations. Should we write from our own personal experiences? Can we use Aunt Berta as a character in our next novel, and simply change her name to Bob? Can we write about the time we fell from the fourth story of an apartment complex in our neighbourhood that time we were trying to escape a run-in with the police by jumping from one balcony to another, if we change the names and make it a fifth floor fall?
When I hear the old adage, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, I kind of get all sorts of negative feels going on. If one takes it at its word, literally speaking, one might feel the desire to pummel the crap out of that adage for being so utterly and completely WRONG and UNHELPFUL and STUPID. It’s definitely cringe-worthy on so many levels.
I write what I know about through personal experiences, yes. I admit this. My themes are, for the most part, on subjects I feel passionate about as a person. I love to use cornerstones such as family dysfunction, teen angst and depression and mental illness. I have used abuse–sexual, physical and emotional. I have used the bully, the quirky off-beat character who doesn’t quite fit in. These are the areas in which I live, at a core level. I like to drag my characters through the proverbial mud, then give them a little leg up and a slim modicum of hope (I hear English teachers flinching at my use of slim and modicum side by side). I certainly don’t write and rewrite my life story every time I sit down to write a novel. You won’t find me in my work. At the same time, you will DEFINITELY find me in my work. When I write a story, I sometimes feel as though I am sending up emergency flares to my teen self…warning him that he is not alone. That someone sees him. That he is real. That it gets better. So, yes. In this sense, I am writing what I know.
Just don’t tell me not to write about life on a nuclear submarine or the story of a 100-year old Zen monk living in the Himalayas as told through the POV of his pet llama because I don’t know these things well enough to write about them. Don’t do that! Think of that adage in a different light. WRITE WHAT YOU WISH TO KNOW ABOUT. WRITE WHAT YOU WILL KNOW ABOUT AFTER YOU WRITE IT. WRITE ABOUT ANY GODDAMNED THING YOU WANT. Don’t restrict yourself. And don’t restrict other writers by giving them lame-ass advice like WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Write what you believe in and allow other writers to do the same. Write what moves you. Write into the darkness of a thing, so that you may shed some light on it.
This brings me to my bastardization of the Shakespeare quote in the title. You will probably have to reread it now, since I tend to ramble so much it kind of drags the reader out into the bush and causes them to become briefly lost. I’ll reiterate here:
TO THINE OWN SELF BE STEW.
You are an accumulation of all of your experiences. And of all the experiences of others which you heard about through stories, news, first or secondhand tellings, etc. You have all of these things living inside you like a chunky manic stew of information and experience. Now, you can gingerly put your hand in and grab out a wad like that cartoon-guy on the Bits & Bites commercial. “You never know what you’re gonna get!” Or, you can dive in from, say, the fourth (or fifth) story of a building in your neighbourhood. Whatever way you choose to enter the stew of your own personal history, you’re gonna come up with a slew of ideas. This is WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. You’re taking from your core and you’re reforming what you–or someone you know or heard of–experienced, and you’re making it a story. You are the stew. So dive in. Discover those situations you think you forgot about, discover places you have been, or scents you remember. Or feels you survived. Discover all your sub-conscious mind has to offer. These are the things you KNOW. Write from that place. TO THINE OWN SELF BE STEW.
Now, I bet you’re thinking, ‘that was a pretty weak nod to the bard. He merely mentioned Shakespeare in passing!’
Nope. That’s not the nod.
As you probably know by now (as I have been shouting from the rooftops), I have recently signed two book contracts. In one of these two books, BURN BABY, BURN BABY, my main character, Francis Fripp, is a fan of Shakespeare. In one scene he and his potential love interest bat back and forth with Shakespeare quotes, trying to stump one another. It’s me injecting a bit of me into the story. The two characters are clearly madly in love with Shakespeare. That’s one of the fun things we get to do as writers. (-:
Incidentally, that’s not the only nod I gave in that particular story. Francis’s last name is ALSO a nod to an author I love, and one of his characters. Tripp was the last name of the main character in Michael Chabon‘s WONDER BOYS. For Francis, I changed it to Fripp, but the nod is still there. (-: