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Write what you know

Amy Leibowitz own voices representation sensitivity writing

It's one of the oldest and most common pieces of writerly wisdom: Write what you know.

At a glance, it seems easy to pooh-pooh. After all, science fiction writers have (presumably) never met an alien from the planet Zork, and to my knowledge, no one has personal experience becoming a werewolf. In real-world terms, everyone writes things outside their own lives, even if it's only the main character's age or career or home town.

On the other hand, there's something to that when it comes to certain things, particularly the emotions that ride along with specific experiences. It can be really tough to capture the way an autistic person interacts with the world or the agony of losing a child or the roller coaster of coming out unless one has been there personally.

We've been talking this month about sensitive content, and this is where my firsthand knowledge intersects with my empathy for others. I do write some things outside my own life; after all, I'm not a man, but I often write from men's perspectives. But when it comes to the deep stuff, I'm always drawing on what I've been through or observed directly.

One of the themes I write about a lot is loss. Not necessarily death, though I've done that too. I'm using the term in a broader sense: loss of faith, of control, of family or friends, of health (physical and mental). This naturally means I'm going to touch on sensitive or heavy subjects.

To illustrate this theme, I rarely use experiences beyond my own or those of my closest friends and family. For example, I drew heavily on my own grief when writing Keeping the Faith. As one reviewer pointed out, even my author note was sad. The entire series sprang from my struggle to maintain spirituality during a particularly difficult time in my life.

In writing An Act of Devotion, I modeled the sexual assault scenario on the shared history some college friends and I had with a man on our campus. My upcoming novel, Drumbeat, includes a character with an eating disorder. The specifics are borrowed from my childhood and in-depth conversations with multiple people close to me.

I've had plenty of negative reviews of my work, but one thing I've never gotten is accusations that the emotions I've shown aren't realistic. While I would never say a person shouldn't write about things they've never been through, it does help. Most of the best books I've read are ones where the author didn't hold back about the joys and pains of their real lives.

So what do you say? I'd love to hear your thoughts on "write what you know."

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