Writing What You Know vs. Using What You Know in Your Writing

September 2, 2012

Sense Memories and Your Writing

August's Winner's Badge

August’s Winner’s Badge

I finished my Camp NaNoWrMo August event with 55,400+ words written. It was a blast. And I think I took my writing to a few new places I hadn’t tried for before.

It was a great time, even though it happened alongside a summer Teaching Practicum and the delivering of my newest Manuscript to my Publisher, Inspired Quill.

Life is what happens while we’re busy making plans.  I won’t have changes a minute of the summer. it was full of creativity and  risks I’m so glad to have try.

One thing I found was this new way for attacking my writing: Deconstruction as a way in to you own work.

It really turned this August writing effort into something  unexpected. That new method for me, coupled with the normal way I work brought up some much deeper and I think, more profound writing.work

My normal method of writing works something like this:

  • I think about stuff for a while… then,
  • I begin to remember things: incidents, voices, images, opportunities (taken & lost)
  • I start taking notes
  • I ask a lot of ‘What if?’ questions
  • I twist things beyond recognition
  • I plan what I’ll write
  • I start writing
  • I stray way afar from my original plans
  • I stick to and enhance some of my original plans
  • I think about upcoming edits I’ll be doing once my first draft is done
  • I manage to finish a full first draft.
  • I think about stuff for a while…

Today, we’ll just review that second item, Remembering Things.  For me it works like this:

I cast my mind back and remember:

a time I was at a mini-writer’s conference (an informal, 3-day weekend kind of get together), and after some ribbing from a fellow writer, bantering that got a bit too close to the bone in its teasing tone, I pointed a finger, leaned into the table we sat around, and heard myself saying, low: Just because I’m smitten with you doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass.’

 That is a sense memory.

There are two things I might do with this memory in my fiction writing.

I could take the ‘Writing What You Know’ road, and excavate this life-moment. Creating a thinly disguised scene that takes nearly all of its content from the actual event in my life.

There’s nothing wrong with writing like this. But frankly, I really don’t think my life experiences are al that riveting. For me, when it comes to writing, sticking too closely to reality is a bore.

So I tend to take the other path: The ‘Using What You Know in Your Writing’ road.

I spend some time thinking a bit on that line:  ‘Just because I’m smitten with you doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass.’

Then, I start taking notes. They are usually ‘What if?’ types of notes.

What if this was said one gay guy to another?

What if these two guys were 18 or 19 at the most?

What if one of the guys was the big brother of a Main Character?

What if she overheard this line, and it drove her to some type of action?

What if she had a younger brother too, who was getting into drugs?

What if these three kids were alone for some reason one summer?

What if the Mom in this piece was sharp-tongued and a bit flawed?

What if the middle sister in this story hated that she was the same way?

What if ….?

For me, this list of writing possibilities will beat, hands down, any real-based story I can cull from my actual life.

True, I’m not a gay guy. I’m no longer 18. I was never a middle sister, between two brothers. There were seven siblings in my family, not three. Etc. etc.

But that butt kicking phrase is very real. I can use it, in my writing, because I know it.

Deciding to take this path, rather than the one that recounts a 3-day weekend with fellow writers, is a choice I’ve made.

Anchoring a story upon a single remembered phrase is another.

Twisting the origin and use of the line is another choice.

NOT  using the line for the Main Character is something you may not have thought to do, so that’s another choice it’s possible to make, if you choose this method.

Using your sense memories in this not-literally manner, the possibilities in your writing are as endless as you allow them to be.

What do you do with your sense memories?

Post a comment and let’s get a discussion going. I’d love to hear from some writers on this.



10 Responses to “Writing What You Know vs. Using What You Know in Your Writing”

  1. Peter Monaco Says:

    Sense memories help me create the powerful moments, the same way your comeback was powerful. It’s like starting at the top of a hill and working your way down, noting why that phrase worked so well when you said it then, not 5 minutes before or after.

    Other than that, I do tend to use them more literally. However, reading this post has opened me up to gleaning much more than that.

  2. ejrunyon Says:

    Yes, a great sense memory, that you allow yourself to run with, rather than to use literally, is a gift. I think it comes from a maturity in the writing craft you have internalized/ gotten under your belt.

    In one of my short stories I used a catch-phrase from my childhood – but used it in a way that was the total opposite of its real-life use. Because, after all, those memories are our to use as we with, and as writers we are allowed to ‘taste life twice’, as someone once said.

    Why bother serving up (recording/transcribing) the same old memory dish? Why not write up some ‘fiction’, rather than disguised biography?

  3. Good creative writing WORK.

  4. […] I’ve written about this in the post Writing What You Know vs. Using What You Know in Your Writing […]

  5. Informative and helpful post, AJ.

    I have a terrific sense memory. This can be a mixed blessing, depending on the memory. Like most people, I tend to remember bad memories better than good ones. Apparently there’s an evolutionary basis for this – a survival mechanism.

    “If you’re attuned to to bad things, you’re more likely to survive threats and will increase the probability of passing along your genes. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”

    Here’s the link to the original NY Times article:

    “Why people Remember Negative events More Than Positive.”

    Thanks for indulging me.

    MJ 🙂

    • ejrunyon Says:

      Thanks for Posting a comment on this MJ,
      I’ve always felt, and I teach this too, that the writer’s job is to free themselves enough take sense memories and refashion them a step away from the literal and personal and into the Universal, where a wider readership can be touched by the writing.

  6. crbwriter Says:

    Nice distinction of “write what you know” vs “using what you know.” Thanks!

  7. Excellent advice! I almost always begin my writing with a snippet of dialogue. Someone says something and someone reacts to it. The opening sentence is often a reaction to a sense memory.

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