Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Write What You Know

I frequently write what I know. I write about fairy tales, which I’ve been studying since I was a child. I write about high school and college, which I attended. I write about church, about characters with mental illness, about camping and cats and families that love each other. And I write about things I don’t know—princesses and romantic relationships and living in tiny cottages without modern amenities. But there are some things that I don’t write specifically *because* I know them. Some things, I’m just too close to.

I’ve never written a character that’s specifically bipolar. I’ve never written a character that deals with the specific romantic issues and experiences I’ve dealt with. I can’t.

Often, authors will say “I want to read a book like this,” and the responses they get are usually along the lines of “Well, write it, then.”

The books I want most, the characters I could relate to in the most meaningful ways—I can’t write those. It would be too difficult, too painful, and even too dangerous.

At this point, you may be wondering, how can writing something be dangerous?

When you are mentally ill, at least, writing something very personal can be extremely risky.

When I was 21, I wrote a novel featuring a protagonist who dealt with a lot of the same mental health issues I had dealt with, by that point in my life. I wrote this during the year I spent in one of the lowest spots I’ve ever been in. Now, there’s a discussion to be had there about correlation and causation. Writing this story didn’t necessarily trigger a breakdown—it’s entirely possible that already being in a bad spot is what inspired me to write about a character in similar circumstances.

But I am absolutely certain that writing that story worsened my mental health in that year. Because this was what I was writing about, writing ceased to be an escape—I went to hide from my real life, and found myself deep in the headspace of a fictional character who was even worse off than me. I always get very entangled with my protagonists when I’m writing, especially if I’m writing in first person, as I was at the time.

My protagonist started the book with an eating disorder. I ended the book with an eating disorder. And, to be clear, I’m not accusing a figment of my imagination, or the process of writing about her, of making me anorexic. But I’d been dancing around the edges of disordered eating for at least five years at that point. I’d known that I was the kind of person who was at risk for developing one. And I do believe that sharing headspace with an anorexic character is a large part of what finally pushed me over the edge. I do still write about mentally ill characters, but I never let their problems come quite that close to me. They’re on good meds when I start writing them. They have problems similar to mine, but not quite the same. I certainly will never again write a self-harm scene pulled directly, exactly, from my own experience.

That was….that was bad.

A very real danger of being a writer with OCD is that you become obsessed, very easily, with whatever you’re writing. My stories consume me. And when I was already in a bad place, continuing to work on that story made everything worse.

I’m still really proud of that book, but none of you are ever going to read it, because I’m scared that thorough revisions would pull me back into that bad place.

I want to read stories about characters who deal with the same really serious, intense stuff I deal with. Reading those stories gives me a few hours of relief, which is the exact opposite of what writing them does. I need to see myself in fiction—I think we all do. But there are parts of myself that I, myself, can’t put into fiction.

I spend a lot of time writing what I know, but I can’t write what I know best.

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