Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this quote: "Write what you know."
That quote has been tossed around in the writing world over and over again. I know I've heard it countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant. It's obvious, right? Write about things that have happened to you. Write about people you know, the things you've done. That's how you make writing authentic, right? Base everything you write on your own life experiences.
Well, partly wrong.
There is nothing wrong about writing based on your own life events. There's gold there. But I think the real meaning of that quote is all about emotions, not events.
Write what you know. Write what you feel. Write what you have felt.
Explore those base and complicated emotions in your writing. How did you feel when your first pet died? You experienced grief, sorrow, confusion, and pain. Use that to write. You don't have to make your characters lose a pet to use those personal emotions. You can use your own pain and grief as inspiration for your characters, but use it in a different way. The feeling will be authentic, even if the events themselves never happened to you.
That's the beauty of writing - that an author can make the reader feel, and feel deeply. How is it that you can read a fantasy novel based in a world that doesn't actually exist, and you can feel along with the character? It's because those root emotions the author uses are real.
Think about the last book that made you feel something. Was it because the character reached the finish line? Or slayed the dragon? Or stood up to their abusive family member? No. It was because of the emotions attached to those actions and experiences. It was because of that feeling of triumph, of accomplishment, of pride, and of relief. You felt along with the character because you've experienced those same emotions or feelings, or, at the very least, you're able to empathize.
Emotion is universal. We can all understand it, even if it's based around made-up people in made-up worlds. No matter what, we all feel the same things in the same ways. That's what builds connections between readers and characters. That's where the magic lives.
Writing what you know is about emotion, not events.
So, take a moment and write down or mentally explore things that happened to you in your life that made you feel deeply. Analyze those feelings. Understand why you felt that way.
And then start writing.
For years I've heard that happiness is a choice. I've struggled with that idea for a long time, but for the last few years, this idea has gnawed at me. And I've finally figured out why it bothers me so much.
The Basics of Emotions & Why We Need Them
Why do we feel? And why do we feel so deeply and with a variety of emotions? For me, the simple truth is that we're supposed to. As humans, we are complex, and that explains why we can have complicated and complex emotions throughout life.
If something makes us upset, I think that's perfectly normal. If something makes us sad, that is fine. That's a part of the human experience. I believe it's OK to be angry, sad, overwhelmed. And It's OK to feel happy.
We are given emotions so that we can process the events around us and those things that happen to us and those we love.
But emotions also help us realize when something needs to change. If we are unhappy, angry, sad, or whatever, something is wrong. Something has bothered us. Something rocks us to our core. Something may have even broken us apart inside.
So what do you do with that emotion? How do you channel it?
The Facade of Happiness
Happiness exists. In its true form, it’s beautiful. I've known moments of real happiness, and I cherish those times. Am I happy all the time? No, definitely not. Do I need to be happy all the time? I don't believe so. I don't think life is supposed to be only made up of happy moments or happy feelings.
I'm not saying you shouldn't try to see the good in situations. I think that's a valuable skill to have. I'm not great at it, but I can definitely appreciate its value. If you can find the beauty in any situation, more power to you. I think that's wonderful.
The Need for Change
My problem isn't with happiness in general or even being a natural or learned positive person. I have a problem with faking happiness for the simple fact of faking it, to appease, to fool yourself, to not deal with the truth in front of you. That doesn't benefit anyone, not even yourself. You can fake an emotion all you want, but deep down inside, your true feelings are there waiting. And they will come out one way or another.
Let me keep this general for a little while longer. If you don't enjoy your work or how someone treats another person, perhaps you should take a moment to understand why you're upset about it. Or maybe you feel stuck in your life and you feel like you want to claw your way out by any means necessary. Whatever your specific situation, know that these aren't hopeless feelings. In fact, they can become quite the opposite.
Use that disappointment, anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety as fuel - fuel for change. Change your life. Change your circumstances. Change Yourself. Change your surroundings. Change the world.
Don't sit by and allow the facade of happiness fool you into complacency. Seek for real happiness, and sometimes that will mean changing yourself. But sometimes that means taking a stand, taking action, and making a difference.
Think about it. What if Rosa Parks pretended to be happy with the social inequalities of the time? Change would've never happened.
What if Martin Luther King, Jr. ignored the injustice around him because his anger or disappointment made others feel uncomfortable?
What if Mother Teresa decided that she could just pretend to be happy and ignore the sadness and suffering all over the world?
How It Applies to Writing
What do you want to do with your life? Do you feel the drive, the need to write? How about being published? How about just expressing yourself through the written word?
What makes you unhappy about your current life? Are you meeting your writing goals?
I can tell you that I'm not. A few days ago, I just wanted to give up again. Just wanted to accept my life as it is. I was giving up and giving in to broken dreams and unfulfilled hopes. And then I read this blog post from Mind the Dog Writing Blog about never giving up, and it gave me some hope back.
So what have you been putting off? Have you always wanted to write a book? Write it!
Have you always wanted to start a blog? Start it!
Do you want to learn a new style of writing? Learn it!
Do you want to share your writing with just one person? Don't wait. Share it.
What have you done to change your own life? What have you changed to work toward your own writing or life dreams?
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.