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#WritingTips from my Bookshelf: Write What You Know

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Excerpt from Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer by Bret Anthony Johnston (Editor)

Setting

Though “write what you know” is perfectly sound advice, I always encourage my students to live other lives in their fiction. I think one of the main reasons new writers don’t finish short stories or novels is because most adhere too closely to “what really happened” and burn out during the increasingly arduous task of rehashing the scenes and emotions. Also, no matter how talented the writer, fiction can never life up to the richness and texture of actual experience. To expect it to is to set yourself up for major disappointment, which may lead you to unfairly question your skills as a writer.

. . . Jot down all the things you remember about the [first-time or last-time] experience, focusing on the sensory: sights, sounds, smells. Now write the scene but change something fundamental about the experience. For example:

  • The gender of the main character.
  • The time period in which the experience occurred; for example, make it happen in the 1920s or the 2020s.
  • The outcome of the experience. If, in reality, you got away with it, show what happens if the main character gets caught.
  • The basic situation. Instead of stealing a Milky Way from CVS, maybe you stole a condom. Or maybe a tie from Saks.
  • Switch “first” with “last” in the statement and then change something else. For example, “The last time this person shoplifted a tie from Saks . . .”
  • Combine one of your firsts with one of your lasts: Maybe the last time the main character saw her father was at a Grateful Dead concert. Or the first boy who broke your heart did so the night the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. To me, this option has the most exciting possibilities.

This exercise works because the author is confidently grounded by the actual experience but still forced to stretch his or her imagination. The more drafts you write, the further from “real life” you will get, and yet the entire piece will likely still retain a sense of authenticity.

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Work Cited:

Johnston, Bret Anthony. Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. New York: Random House, 2007. 13–14. Print.

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