“I think I’ll write a story – make it a 300-page novel – of something I know nothing about,” said no one ever.
Unfortunately, dear readers, this is not the case. People are writing books, essays, short stories, movies and even news articles on topics that have absolutely no basis in that individual’s reality. All. The. Time.
I’m not talking about reality versus fiction or any sort of physical reality. I’m talking about what is real to a human being; something that stirs emotion inside of him.
Let’s back up.
My favorite author of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, was a science fiction writer. Not much in the way of tangible, realistic events taking place in these books. Vonnegut didn’t write about Billy Pilgrim getting unstuck in time and being kidnapped by aliens because he was familiar with time travel and extraterrestrials, but he used that as a device to write what he was familiar with – the bombing of Dresden and being stuck in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker.
He knew the ins and outs of the city of Dresden. He understood the emotions tied up in witnessing such death and destruction – and surviving it. He knew the experiences of a World War II POW and what it felt like to burn the corpses of his comrades and of the women and children of this sleepy German town.
Vonnegut’s revisiting of this experience took many shapes throughout his writing career – it was such an integral, formative experience in his life, it shaped everything else to follow.
That’s not to say that all of Vonnegut’s work was autobiographical. (Nor should yours be). The common thread in all of his writing was the depth of understanding he displayed for his subject matter. He wrote about what he knew. Whether that was his home city of Indianapolis (which makes a cameo in a great deal of his novels); his knowledge and interest in politics and his strong liberal slant; or his experience as a soldier in World War II – it all came from his reality.
So when writing your next Great American Novel, be sure to include at least one aspect that is near and dear to your heart. Don’t write about a self-exploratory journey to India if you don’t know anything about Indian culture. Don’t write a story of loss and depravity if you’ve never lost anyone close to you (instead, rejoice, because you are very lucky). Instead, think about what makes you who you are, what you have to offer the world as one of the seven billion of souls inhabiting it, and write about that.
“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.”
- Kurt Vonnegut