Few bits of writing wisdom are doled out more avidly than that old chestnut about writing what you know, meaning writing from your own experience. It makes sense, of course. It’s a logical path to crafting fiction that feels true. But it’s also the kind of advice that can have a paralyzing effect on a story.
“I see it all the time,” says Algonquin Executive Editor Chuck Adams. “Writers have faithfully recreated a moment they experienced or sometimes a place that they knew well, but it doesn’t work to advance the story the way it should. So when I suggest it be changed, they will say, ‘But that’s not the way it really happened.’ To which I say, ‘I don’t care. This is fiction. Let it go.’ ”
A writer who slavishly hews to the facts of his own experience may actually prevent his narrative from taking on a life of its own.
“For just about all writers, writing about the things that they know best, the things that have shaped and been part of their lives, is both cathartic and inescapable,” says Adams. “Where many writers go wrong is in striving too strenuously to impart a sense of absolute truth.”
It’s a delicate balance, one that Algonquin author Amy Rowland knows well. The protagonist, Lena, in Rowland’s just-published novel The Transcriptionist, is one of the last transcriptionists working at a major New York daily called The Record. The Record happens to look a lot like The New York Times, where Rowland was, in fact, one of the last transcriptionists, transcribing articles and interviews called in by reporters. (The department closed in 2007.) Though she went on to other positions with the newspaper, Rowland was drawn to the rich literary implications of being the last of a dying breed.
One way for writers to safeguard against fact getting in the way of the fiction is to find a device that creates a sort of remove. Changing the names of characters and places, for example, or taking real events and playing them out in a different time frame, or combining real events with others that are wholly fictional. Rowland, who was still working at the Times while she started writing the novel, made part of that shift through what she calls “the unconscious decision to flirt with surreality.”
“I consciously chose to write about a newspaper transcriptionist—it was an interesting journalistic moment I wanted to capture—but I took all my observations and emotions around the work and pushed them to the extreme. This allowed me to work in fictional territory that felt far removed from my workaday world, yet the setting, the character’s work, were things that I knew and understood.”
Adams, Rowland’s editor on The Transcriptionist, advises authors to consider a similar path. “Don’t let the facts get in the way,” he says. “The writer of fiction should use fact and reality judiciously, to form the background, to give life to the characters who populate their stories.” But then, quite simply, they should just write. Let the story be what it needs to be.
Another approach Rowland took was to actively write against the grain of her experience. “Whenever I found myself writing something that felt too close to reality, or sensed that I was airing workplace grievances in my fiction, I went in a completely different direction. I sent Lena out into the world, where she had encounters that were totally unrelated to the newspaper or to anything I myself had experienced.”
Still, others of Rowland’s characters do bear a striking similarity (in not entirely flattering brush strokes) to actual high-profile figures at the Times. Early in her writing, Rowland says she didn’t worry about what her colleagues would think. “I was writing in the void. I didn’t have a publisher; I didn’t have an agent; I didn’t have a finished novel.” She even left the newspaper for a time to focus on the novel.
Recently, however, she returned and now works as an editor on the Times Book Review.
“So far, things have played out beautifully with my colleagues. Everyone has been supportive—that’s a great thing about working with journalists. I think, for the most part, they respect authorship.”
In fact, one day recently the publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger, stopped by Rowland’s office and asked for a signed copy of the novel, saying, with what Amy describes as a somewhat cryptic look, “It sounds fascinating.”
In the end, there was freedom for Rowland in having The Transcriptionist anchored in her own experience.
“The freedom came with the understanding of the setting, and of Lena’s work. I didn’t know how the novel would end. But I had my bearings, and I could observe my characters in a world I knew. Sometimes they surprised me, which was best of all.”
When your experience serves as a guide rather than a strict set of parameters, writing what you know can be an excellent way to discover what you don’t know, which is what will make your characters and story truly feel real.