On Writing What You “Knew”


Everyone’s heard the saying “write what you know.” (And if you haven’t, I’m alternately mystified by the possible origin of your existence and jealous because you’ve probably also never heard of Snooki. Damn your enviable peace of mind.)

Lately, I’ve had a chance to consider my next project, and the choices are between a past setting I’m intimately familiar with (i.e. my hometown in Oregon) and my current setting (i.e. the Caribbean). Both are great places, but the current setting is obviously fresher in my mind, since I’d be living here as I wrote the book.

This brings me to the point of this post. When you’re writing about “what you know” in the moment, the process can be really illuminating. Details are more vivid, emotions are fresh, and even the slightest observation seems so important in the grand scheme. For example, when I go back through my blog posts from the year 2005, I can almost see the crushed hopes and the agony of a failed first love bleeding between the lines of text…because that was the year that some jerk dumped me in an e-mail and I spent the next six months bemoaning the treachery of life as I knew it. Looking back on them now, of course, it seems a little melodramatic.

However, one could also argue that writing about something you “used to know” can become just as skewed with time as present events seem to be from emotion or lack of perspective. Time can ameliorate all things, as they say. Ten years later, the smothering hell of public high school can seem nostalgic, even quaint in recollection. Or a bitter feud between your childhood nemesis can be just a silly, teenage misunderstanding. Details can be robbed from your memories with age.

So which is better, you might ask? Utilizing the present tense, in all its glory, to capture the entire scope of human experience? The good, the bad, and the acne? Should you dip into the well of your past for inspiration? Or is it better to simply make everything up as you go along?