Write What You Don't Know

A common bit of advice to any young writer of fiction is to "write what you know". I guess the idea is that the more a writer knows about his subject matter, the more fleshed out the world becomes, the truer the characters sound, and the easier a time the writer has generating story. I recently started reading Nemesis, the latest book by the great American novelist, Philip Roth, and I have already been struck by some familiar places and themes. Like most of Roth's stories, this one takes place in Newark in the 1940's, with a young Jewish man for a protagonist. This backdrop for a story has worked for Roth in book after book, with each story resonating uniquely on its own. He manages to keep things fresh and true by writing what he knows:  The lives of Jews in Newark in the 20th century. But he only begins there.

Roth quickly deviates from his own personal experience and invents, exaggerates, and embellishes to generate an original story that rings true. Not because they are true, but because they begin at a place of truth. Nemesis has a protagonist of a playground director who helps the community cope with the polio epidemic. Roth no doubt was a child during the epidemic, but his work is still that of fiction. He does plenty of research and writes with such depth that one easily assumes he is documenting from personal experience (a common assumption of many of his works).

In writing and rewriting this screenplay, I certainly use personal experience as a jumping-off point, but from then on, the imagination runs wild and nothing in the movie is personal at all.

Now, I dont have an audience of millions who know my life well enough to draw parallels to the characters and stories I write. However, even in sharing the script with a select few, I am always interested to hear what elements they believe to be based on either my own life or the lives of people I know. Sometimes, they'll even think something is based on them. Usually they are partially correct, but that is only the mundane stuff. The real fun and challenge is to write what you don't know ... To start in a world and perspective that you can support, and then turn it loose. Once you turn it loose, you've got to flesh out the fiction with detail (research). This way the real stuff and the fake stuff get mixed together on the page and make for a great and entertaining story. Well it works for Roth, anyway.

Enough of the writing talk. Some of these writing ruminations are starting to feel pedantic. Next post, I'll start getting into tech stuff and discussing how this thing may actually look in production.