Balls of Steel: Write What You Know … or Not

“Write what you know.”  That was the number one piece of advice people gave me when I first started writing.

So I did … until I realized I don’t know squat.

My first two scripts were boring as hell. Turns out, “what I know” wasn’t cinematic at all; it was self-indulgent.

Solution: I got a therapist. Now I talk to her about “what I know,” so I can let my creativity loose and write better stories.

The problem with writing “what we know” is it’s hard not to protect the protagonist who we so desperately identify with. When the feedback comes rolling in and reads, “She’s boring; I don’t get her motivations, and I don’t like her,” our instinct is to shoot the messenger when we should be thanking him. Instead of understanding the notes really say, “Your protagonist is boring,” some writers hear, “You are boring.”

Beyond writing “what we know,” too many writers put pen to paper and write about whom they know.

Newsflash: No one gives a rat’s ass about your grandpa.

I admit, even I have a rough outline of my own Grandpa Story in my files. My Sicilian, dark-haired, baby-blue, smoldering-eyed grandfather had connections with Mussolini, won the Irish Sweepstakes, squandered all his money on a Spanish countess … who subsequently dumped him … and he fled to America, tail between his legs while under the watchful eyes of the FBI. Sure, on the surface that may sound intriguing (and believe me, there are many more layers to his story), but until I can write it without filters, without worrying about what other family members would feel, without the instinct to protect him because his blood pulses through my veins, I won’t write it …

Because no one gives a rat’s ass about my grandpa either.

The cold fact is what we find exciting about our lives is usually boring as hell to others. However, there is a solution — find the nuggets you can relate to and you’ll bring authenticity to your story.

Let’s take Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) as an example — our adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, exposing the continued slavery of African Americans post Civil War. What does a white girl raised in the New York State countryside by middle class, educated parents know about being an African-American slave in 1903, or even being a white, prejudiced Southerner living in that world?

Not so much.

Yet I was drawn to the story in a way I didn’t understand until I was deep into writing the adaptation.

While crafting the plantation scenes, I was eerily comfortable. Not with the brutality of them, but with the emotions of the men and women who were enslaved. Some of my friends suggested I must have been a slave in a past life. Maybe I was.

But as I kept writing, the story pulled feelings from me I hadn’t known existed. Then it finally hit me. While I had never been a slave, I could relate to these people simply because I knew what it felt like to be trapped and to have no control over my life. I used those familiar feelings to fuel the SBAN story.

I found something I could relate to and wrote about it, not in a literal way, but in a unique way.

When I asked last Sunday’s Scriptchat screenwriters if they write what they know, Rhys Howell expressed it perfectly: “I try to write the emotions I know, in the situations I don’t.”

You might want to copy that one down.

In pondering my current writing projects, that’s exactly what I’m instinctively doing — using my emotions more than the facts of my life to craft a story. After all, my main goal is to move people with my words. If I can find my own emotional connection to the story, then hopefully I can find it for my readers.

For all of you who are writing those scripts that are true stories, try giving yourself permission to stretch the truth and let your imagination and emotional core take over. Don’t stay married to the facts. Sometimes facts are boring. Instead take those facts and ask, “What do I suspect this person was feeling at the time this happened to them?” Or explore what you were feeling if it was a true event in your own world.

I asked those questions many times while writing SBAN, because I had no idea what these real-life historical figures felt. I only knew what their actions were. We had to create personalities where we had no concrete evidence of what made these people tick. We had to determine their wounds and character traits solely based on the actions they took in their lives. It was backwards character development. It works well when adapting nonfiction … which is exactly what a story about “what you know” often is.

So go ahead and write “what you know,” but try adding in a little of what you don’t know, too. If you can’t give yourself permission to do that, then allow me to wave my magic wand and release you from your chains.

Ironically, that is exactly what writing Slavery by Another Name did for me — it freed me.

Please share any tips on writing nonfiction in the comments below. As always, if you have ideas for future Balls of Steel columns, or topics you’d like me to explore, email me at jeanne@jeannevb.com. Keep writing!

9 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Write What You Know … or Not

  1. Fey1IsleofSkye/Sidney Peck

    Jennne,

    Really nice. We all do it, write what we know and as I like to say run with the story. Take it where it can go, which is almost always more interesting than where it actually went in real life. For those few stories that can stand dramatically on their own, well, they’re the exceptions.

    Peace and Respect.

  2. Steven DeRosa

    Great piece, Jeanne…especially the advice to “write the emotions you know, in situations you don’t.” When interviewing John Michael Hayes for “Writing with Hitchcock” he said something very similar to me about how he overcame the protagonist’s emotional obstacle in REAR WINDOW. How/when is Jeff going to realize that he loves Lisa…Hayes linked that to the scene where Jeff helplessly witnesses Thorwald attack Lisa, recalling how he felt when he watched his wife nearly die in a car accident. Same emotion, different situation, great scene.

  3. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Great insights, Mark. I’ll confess I often talk about what connects me to my characters while I’m in my therapy sessions. Lots of great revelations come forth that I then use in my writing. I’m a HUGE believer in writers going to therapy at some point in their careers.

  4. Mark Dispenza

    Jeanne,
    Thank you for writing this article. It’s right on the button. As I’ve said in Scriptchat and in my other writings to help my fellow scriptwriters, “what you know” is the character arc, not the setting. I recently had an experience that strongly validates your ideas here. I’m a white middle class male who grew up in New Orleans and became passionate about issues of social justice during three years of volunteer social work. For a long time I wondered how I could write about my protagonist with such powerful emotion when we came from different worlds. She is female, mixed race and a victim of childhood trauma in which she was raped at the age of 10 and witness to the murder of her parents. I always wondered how I could understand this character so well. Then I had a session with former psychoanalyst and Hollywood script consultant, Patrick Horton. In one of those aha moments, he connected me with two unrelated events from my childhood, the last of which occurred when I was 10. That event uprooted my family, took my comfortable childhood away and exposed me to the fact that my all-powerful parents were vulnerable to evil, and their ability to protect me, which I had assumed absolute, was in reality limited when confronted by overwhelming force. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I never consciously connected these events with my fiction. Now I realize that the death of my heroine’s parents in the story is allegorical to the change in the way I viewed my own parents (traumatic to a child aged 10), and led to a lifetime influenced by emotions of fear, distrust, resentment, and a burning drive to destroy those who exploit the weaknesses of the innocent for personal gain–the very same emotions that drive my protagonist at the beginning of her character arc in WHITE WITCH. Interesting isn’t it – what happens when we write what we know, whether or not we realize we know it? Your story sounds much the same.

  5. James Beattie Morison

    I’ve struggled with this “write what you know” idea. I agree with your suggestion that it is the emotions you know and not the facts you know that are important.

    I came up with what I think was the best short film I’ve done was when I took the emotions I felt in a situation and put them into a different context.

    I’ve always thought that what made it work was that it allowed me to distance myself from the subject. I could be a real bore about it. I see now that it forced me to focus on the emotions.

  6. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks, Michael. My novel started out as a true story, but once I realized there wasn’t enough conflict, and I was guarding the characters too much in fear of making their real-life counterparts uncomfortable, I changed it all and made it “inspired by a true story”. Man, was that liberating! Improved the work tenfold.

    In regard to SBAN, we stayed true to the foundation of history, but crafted some composite characters and merged events to really give it a powerful punch. Let the magic wands wave.

  7. mkempestaMichael Kempesta

    Very much enjoyed the article. “Write about what you know” is 101 teaching we have heard all our lives.
    My journalistic tendency wanted to prevent me from creative embellishments, but yeah, let’s spread our wings and fly. What we know will keep us grounded. What we imagine will lift us into flight.
    Thank you for your magic wand, and love the irony.

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