If writers took the old adage “Write What You Know” to heart, I’m willing to bet that nearly all modern protagonists would be writers struggling to craft a literary masterpiece, balance the demands of their day jobs, relationships, and families, while battling the sometimes crippling self doubt that comes with being a sensitive, creative type. And really, there are already plenty of novels that fit this bill.*
There’s a reason why there aren’t more novels about plumbers or dry-wallers. When was the last time you read a book about a 50-year-old assembly line worker in a chicken processing plant in Missouri? I will venture a guess at an explanation: most fiction writers know very little about the best way to strip a chicken or replace a leaky flush valve.
I am not above this literary sink trap. But if I only wrote about what I know, I would quickly run out of material.
My current novel-in-progress, Small Legends, centers on four main characters. Although I’ve never been 1) a post-feminist mom trying to find her place in a time of changing gender roles, 2) an artistic yet angst-ridden 19-year-old boy, or 3) a 30-something woman with commitment issues (okay, I might relate to that last one just a tad), I can understand where all of these characters are coming from. However the fourth character – a middle-aged, blue collar lineman who works for the electric company – is completely out of my realm of experience. Middle-aged men are somewhat of a mystery to me (which probably explains why I’m still single) and if I worked on the line, I’d probably fall to my death from the utility pole before I had a chance to electrocute myself. So yeah, he’s been a challenging character.
Another topic central to my novel’s plot: Parenthood. I do not have children. I do not particularly like children, with the de facto exception of my friends’ children. But I am attempting to write about the feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that my characters have for their children. I am attempting to create genuine parent/child relationships, and quickly realizing that I should really pay better attention when friends and co-workers talk about their kids.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a member of my writers’ group – a mother of two – gently called me out for subscribing to another familiar adage: Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard. “How are the parents able to have so many uninterrupted conversations with a rambunctious four-year-old boy in the same house?” she asked. “Where is their son all this time?”
Duh. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that the parents might need to interact with their child every now and again. Because I wasn’t putting myself in their shoes, I was sort of putting them in mine – an elementary party foul for writers.
I took her questions to heart and rewrote the next chapter to incorporate significantly more face time with the four-year-old boy, including a brief but telling exchange between mother and son that another member – a middle-aged man and a father – declared “beautiful”:
As my stomach grew, Nate took to spending more and more time talking to the baby growing inside of it. He decided that if it was a boy, he would name it Pinocchio, after one of his favorite Disney characters, and if it was a girl, Alice, after his other.
“I like peanut butter,” Nate stage-whispered, his face about an inch away. “And goldfish crackers.”
“What about string cheese?” I suggested. Nate looked up at me as if he was surprised to find that I was still attached to my stomach.
“Mommy, you’re not supposed to listen!” he complained, frowning.
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t listen anymore.”
He moved even closer so that his lips brushed up against my sweater when he whispered, “And string cheese.”
I pretended not to hear.
I am learning, it seems, once scene at a time.
*Exhibit A: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, in which a frustrated writer is seven years and 2,500-words into a novel that he can’t seem to finish. Either Chabon is a master for pulling this off so beautifully or I’m a sucker for a good story about the struggles of my fellow writers. Probably both. Stephen King also famously writes about writers (Misery, Tommy Knockers, Bag of Bones), but takes their struggles far beyond rejected query letters and writers’ block.