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“Write what you know” – lesson 1

The classic writing advice flung at the feet of the novices is the catchy “Write what you know” dictum. Those four words have generated more discussion and frustration than possibly any other piece of advice ever proffered. I don’t have to wade through all that again, not here, it’s been said so many times, so may places, and by so many people, it’s like the water table in low-lying lands, dig just a little and it’ll come pouring out to fill the hole. Its merits or lack thereof I will thus leave to others to continue discussing.

So what I propose to do here, instead, is a series of articles illustrated by things that I myself “know”, the lessons I’ve taken from events in my own life… and see where that takes us.

There are many different kinds of writers and they gravitate by instinct to different kinds of story. There are writers who find it easier and more organic to approach stories as being plot-driven, as a series of events leading from a causative effect to a given conclusion, with the journey between these two points clearly signposted by plot developments, with Things That Need To Happen Now for the story to move forward. I suspect these writers are the kind who find it easier to write outlines and synopses than I do – because I’m the OTHER kind of writer, for me the story is what happens to the characters, the thing that makes the characters change. The drama of the story – the laughter and the tears, the joy and the tragedy, the triumph and the failure – is not the basic building block. The thing that drives me is how my charaacters respond to a stimulus of a given kind, and it doesn’t matter precisely what kind of triumph and disaster befalls them so long as it’s the KIND of thing that will make htem change in a given way. I am an emotional writer, not necessarily a “logical” one in the sense that all my ducks have to be in a row before my story can be written – I write to seek an emotional truth, and often the road I take to my destination can be a surprising one.

Books and movies often come with the disclaimer that the story is wholly fictional and that the characters resemble no people living or dead – which is of course almost impossible to achieve because every character that a writer sketches on a page is to some extent based on people that (s)he knows. Write what you know – here is where that comes in.

Let me tell you a story now, and see if you too will “know” the emotion behind it.

When I was about sixteen years old, I was living in South Africa, studying towards my A-Level examinations (those, for my American readers, are what come after O-levels, the school-leaving examination; it is the A-levels that take you on to University, though, that final extra step between school and college). Because the only school that offered the A-levels – a British qualification and not a South African educational system requirement as such – was a boys’ school, they only admitted a select small number of girls into this post-matriculation senior class. Therewere, I believe, seven of us, all sixteen or so, and believe me, you don’t know what paranoia is until you walk down the halls of a school filled with pre-pubescent boys whose whispered conversations abruptly cease as you come within hearing range and who then follow you with carefully schooled expressions until you turn a corner and move out of sight at which point you hear the sussurus of the conversation begin again… but I digress. My point is that of the seven of us, four were from out of town, and needed boarding facilities. It was obviously not feasible to carve out a boarding environment for four sixteen-year-old females in a school packed with young males – there would have been a riot. So we boarded at a nearby girls’ school, not precisely a part of that school in the sense that we didn’t actually attend it but quartered there in a special wing, with our own little rooms in an eyrie in a wing that took up an entire side of the main entrance quad, and accessed from it; another side of said quad housed the administrative staff and their quarters, including the Headmaster’s office (bear with me, this becomes important background info in a minute). The quad itself was a beautiful little garden, with pathways surrounding a central grassy square which housed a bed of fragrant roses, and the quad was redolent with their scent in the summer.

During the year that I was there, one of the other four A-level candidates and mydorm-mate and next-door-neighbour in our little senior wing was a Greek girl who had ripened early in the manner of Mediterranean womanhood. At sixteen, this girl – let’s call her S – had all the curves of a grown woman twice her age, with rounded hips and an eye-popping bust which was an all too frequent subject of those falling-silent conversations between the younger boys at our OTHER school. She was pretty, but not stunning, not a head-turner in a goddess-come-to-life kind of way.

When S announced the imminent visit of a cousin, the rest of us in the boarders’ wing expected something much like her.

What we got, instead, was Apollo.

The cousin in question turned out to be a young man, some 19 years of age, tall and with the kind of muscular athletic build that was the perfect frame to set off the bad-boy black motorcycle leather jacket that he wore… to go with the motocycle on which he roared into the parking lot while we all hung out of the windows to watch his arrival. When he took off his helmet and shook out those golden curls, we were all lost, and S introduced him to us with a proprietorial air, with her arm linked in his. He had an easy smile and huge blue eyes to match that vivid spun-gold hair – and dammit all, he was a NICE bad boy, to boot. He was pleasant, he flirted with all of us and smiled at all of us and had a way with us that made it easy to relax and not turn into a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls fawning on him with tongue tied adoration. He was, not to mince words, flat-out gorgeous, inside and out.

When the girls school where we boarded announced their annual summer dance that year, something gave me the courage – and, having somehow (I don’t even remember how) come into possession of D’s phone number, I called him from the public phone in the main hallway of the school, with practically no privacy and blushing scarlet and glad he wasn’t there to actually see me do this, and asked him if he would like to come as my date. He accepted. I subsequently had to deal with a week’s worth of sulks from S, my dorm-mate, who had planned on asking him herself but just happened to be a little slower off the mark.

The night of the dance was a perfect balmy summer evening, the sky full of stars, the roses in the school’s entrance quad lending their own scent of enchantment to the occasion. D turned up on time and stripped off his leather jacket to change into a jacket and tie. He was a perfect escort. He danced, and danced well, which was by no means a given when it came to gangly adolescent boys – and in point of fact he stood out from the rest of the pimply boyfriends paraded around by the fact that he wasn’t a gangly adolescent boy any more, he was an enchantingly poised young man with more charm than seemed fair for a single person to possess. In between dances he made sure I was supplied with whatever drinks were on offer. He excused himself once to dance with his cousin, which was only polite, and which served to mollify S somewhat to the point that she could go on and enjoy the rest of the evening.
It was a magic night.

The dance was nearly thirty years ago, and details of the evening have long vanished from my mind – but I do remember, vividly, the finale.

The boarding school’s curfew was usually midnight but because of the dance this had been extended by special dispensation until 2AM. Sometime around half past twelve D and I began to drift back from the hall where the dance was held towards the main quad and its atmosphere of attar-of-roses; we were in no hurry to go anywhere or to say good night, we were deep in conversation, and when we reached the quad we stood there on the pathway and talked some more. The Headmaster, apparently working very late that night, emerged from the administrative wing as we stood chatting in the quad and passed us with a nod and a fairly loaded “Good night”; we said, “Good night, sir”, and watched him round the corner of the quad and move out of sight.

We were still there when the Headmaster came back, about an hour later.

I remember this scene because it seemed to me that I had somehow slipped out of my own body, and I was watching the events from across the sleeping roses. There I stood, leaning with my back against a red brick pillar, my hands folded between me and the warm brick and one foot resting lightly against the pillar base tucked behind the other. There D stood, leaning in over me slightly, one of his hands in his pocket and the other leaning flat-palmed against the pillar right next to my shoulder. We were smiling at one another. The Headmaster came round the same corner which he’d vanished behind earlier, saw us, did a beautiful double-take, glanced at his watch, raised his eyebrows. But it was still not quite the witching hour of two o’clock and he had not even caught us holding hands let alone anything beyond that. But although he said nothing the set of his shoulders and the slight frown on his face spoke volumes – “It is time this ended.”

He vanished, again, and I found that I had dropped my eyes and could not, for the life of me, lift them again to D’s face. Somehow all the easy familiarity of the moment had fled, transmuted into a vivid tension that left a coppery taste of what was almost fear in the back of my throat. Up until this moment, I had not thought beyond what would happen next, how this evening would end. Now, I could think of nothing else. And it came, his hand, just as I was expecting it to, landing gently on my cheek, cupping my chin, lifting my fact until I had to look at him again. His blue eyes were laughing, but in a good way, in such a good way.

“I suppose he’s right,” D said. “Good night. Thank you for a lovely evening.”

And he kissed me.

I honesly don’t remember if that was my first kiss or not – if anything had come before that, it was obviously not memorable enough to stick in my mind.

But perhaps what made this one stay with me for so long was not this night itself, magic though it had been, but what came after.

About a week after the dance S came stumbling into my room, her usually warm ivory skin bleached white with shock. She blurted the news – D had been riding his motorcycle when he was hit from behind by a learner driver who accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake and slammed into him with sufficient force to skid the bike sideways and send him flying forward across the handlebars… straight into the path of another car coming from the opposite direction. They took him to the hospital, a broken doll with multiple fractures and a slew of internal injuries. All of this, they fixed with a series of eye-wateringly long and complex surgeries.

S relayed the developing news as it happened – the surgeries, the aftermath, the recovery at home. But she did not tell me that there was one thing they did not fix, they did not know how to fix.

I phoned, after he was home, to speak to him, to wish him well. I spoke to someone friendly, polite… but with no memory of who I was, or, not too long into the phone conversation, of who he had started talking to at all. His mother took the phone and told me that he had suffered profound psychological consequences as well as the physical trauma of the accident. He had simply ceased to be able to hold any long-term memories at all.

He was nineteen years old. He had been gorgeous, bright, kind, with a life full of promise stretching into the future… and now the future was gone.

I never saw him again. I don’t know what became of him. I had no time to fall in love, not really, but I might have done, if given a chance – and I still remember him with a quiet happiness. But I also think of him whenever some senseless tragedy falls into my path. For thirty years I have carried the memory and the presence of a boy who had had my name, my face, my very existence erased from his mind.

Write what you know. This is part of my emotional truth, the taste of the bitter with the sweet, the sense that the world is wonderful and unfair all at once, that viciously bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it. When I write characters who love, or cling to a fading faith, or yearn, or are struck with a sudden paralysing shyness in the face of a magic moment – it is this that I come back to, this scene in the album of the pictures of my life.

Love, and loss. And life. As always was, as always will be. You know this.Writing what you know doesn’t mean taking a scene or a character or a sequence of events or a setting absolutely verbatim from the fabric of your own existence. If we all did that, then we would have but one story to tell – our own, and nothing else would matter or could impinge on that. But our stories are never just ours. We touch so many other lives, so many other stories – and every one of those touches us back. All of this, we know. And can write about.

Here endeth the first lesson. Go you, now, and write.

First posted at Storytellersunplugged Jan. 30, 2008


About AlmaAlexander

I'm a scientist by education, a duchess by historical accident and an author who shares writing tips and glimpses of a writer's life, the mundane and the magic

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