ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: K is for Know

Posted by on Jul 16, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Maria_AuthorBio-300x296As lifelong students of writing, we’ve all heard the advice to “write what you know.” I’d like to be subversive about this well-worn topic, and implore you to turn that advice on its head. To throw the old rules out. To write with wild, passionate abandon about any thing your writerly heart desires. And to worry about the details and fact-checking later.

But I can’t. Not in good conscience. You should write what you know. Especially in the world of creative nonfiction, you should be careful to write the story as it happened.

I hope that doesn’t feel limiting to you, though. I hope it feels exciting, because while you should write the story as it happened, you should write it as it happened to you.

When we focus on the “know” part of “write what you know,” it can feel like we’re not writers so much as court stenographers. That being a writer means being stuck in library stacks (though, that doesn’t sound like a terrible way to spend an afternoon, in my opinion), researching topics and sticking very closely to the truth. Or rather, being forced to stick to “the truth.” That as writers, we have to earn the trust of our readers and show we’re experts in our topic, so much so that we can suck the joy out of what we’re writing. That we’re just relaying facts and events. This happened and this was the background of what lead to the event, and then this was the consequence of it, and this is how I felt about that. The end.

And while we do have an obligation to be truthful and earn our readers’ trust, it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the pleasure of writing and the unique experience of self-exploration that writing forces upon us.

When you shift your emphasis on that phrase, everything changes.

Place the emphasis on the word “you.” Write what you know. Write what you know, because no one else can.

My personal writing philosophy, like that of Donald Murray, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and teacher, is that all writing is autobiographical. Everything a writer writes is filtered through our personal lens, our particular point of view, our very specific, if not always self-consciously decided diction. I’d argue that every word matters, every comma. Every little detail we choose to share – or not share – is a glimpse into how that one particular writer’s brain works. Their particular experience on this earth.

What an enormous responsibility we writers have, but also, what a wonderful privilege.

To be able to shape events just by the order in which we choose to tell it; the words we choose to describe it; the places where we pause to place our emphasis. That a family member can read about what we’ve written and say, “I never knew it affected you so much,” or “I didn’t remember it exactly that way,” or that a stranger can read your words and say, “This feels like it happened to me,” or “This actually feels like my story,” is not just a potential point of contention or connection.

It’s the most apt expression of the singular human experience as there ever could be. That’s what great writing and literature should do.

I don’t want to get too far down a philosophical wormhole about writing – unless you’d like to, in which case, let’s meet for coffee – but I will say that no matter what genre you’re writing in, or what particular subgenre of creative nonfiction you’re exploring, you’re writing what you know to be true. It’s not the facts, it’s not what everyone else also experienced, it’s not the police report of the events. It’s your telling of it.

What a gift to be able to write and share your truth and have it endure.

Maria Marmanides is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and Connecticut. She spends a lot of time in airports. When she’s not racking up air miles traveling coast-to- coast, she writes creative nonfiction essays and is an editorial content creator for TriBeCa Film’s film blog, Outtake. She is hard at work on her first fictional novel. Maria received her MFA at Fairfield University and works as a marketing copywriter, where she makes up nonsense words and writes puns all day.

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