CONTEXT: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland

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A well-known piece of advice for authors is “Write what you know.”  In a culture in which so many people have suffered as legitimate victims due to the actions or choices of someone else, is there room for writers whose personal suffering is more like personal discomfort, because it pales in comparison to that of so many others? I’ve noticed that many of the highest-profile Christian bloggers have endured heart-wrenching pain from the death of a spouse, child, or marriage and openly share their grief, pain, and struggles.

I have had few experiences with deep grief, very little physical pain, and few struggles. I was one of the 5% of white students in a historically black university in the late ’60s. In my speech class, other students were brave young (!) Vietnam combat veterans, brave young adults who had participated in civil rights marches, and brave students whose homes were in the toughest parts of big cities where crime was the usual backdrop. I had experienced none of that. Enrolling there as a white minority student was the bravest thing I had ever done, and that didn’t seem brave at all at the time–it was just the most convenient place to get a particular degree I wanted.

In the required speech class, I got B after B on my speeches, and I wanted A’s. I had won a state qualifier, then a national public speaking competition, and I believed I could address an audience well. I didn’t think the professor was prejudiced against me because of my race, but I did think that he was grading at least partly on the inherent significant drama of the topics presented in the other students’ first-person speeches, rather than the presentation criteria of the speeches themselves. I could not compete with those experiences as topics, but I did think I could compete on presentation; so I talked to him about it. He was surprised and receptive when I respectfully asked him if the dramatic experiences the other students were relating might be negatively impacting his impression–and my grades–by comparison, and he agreed to consider the possibility. After that, the speeches I carefully planned and presented well did earn A’s.

As an author of fiction, however, I can’t go to the reader and say, “I couldn’t make this more compelling because I haven’t experienced anything like it, either as a victim or a perpetrator.” Readers WILL compare my prose to that of others, with no consideration at all of where the knowledge originated. I am awed by those in my own family who  minister to victims AND to perpetrators of crimes on a daily basis, but I can only understand sympathetically, not empathetically.  I tend to avoid having anyone in my stories experience excruciating pain, physical or emotional, because I have to fight feeling like an impostor when I do write about it.  By the grace of God, I have had no experiences like that.

What do YOU think?  Do authors who write about tough topics they haven’t personally experienced have the same level of credibility as those who have lived through them?

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