by Valerie Poulin
Write what you know. This is the advice you get. From editors and writers, in classrooms and email dispatches, in magazine articles, and on websites.
You say what you really know is lost love and regret, but this is not all you know.
You know the restlessness of young adulthood, complacency of job and workplace, unrealized dreams. You know the state of apathy. A long-held position. You know that, too.
If you were to write what you know about work life, it would be about the monotony, the tedium of working at a job filled with routine. Your protagonist would work on the line in a factory, at a desk job, or as a night janitor. She could be a traffic cop, or a toll-booth operator. You would apply what you know about the dissatisfaction of doing unfulfilling work. You would write about job loss. About being outsourced, restructured, eliminated.
You know relationships. You recall successes and failures. You know the relentless hope of dishonest friendship, of hurtful words by teachers, of unkind remarks by pastors and priests. You remember what it felt like to be deceived — by a salesperson, an estranged sibling, a stranger on the street. Anyone on the job site. Everyone in authority.
You know what it is to be an outsider. To feel like the ugliest person in the room, the dullard at a party, the least successful person in your social circle.
And you know what it feels like to be discarded, unwanted, rejected.
You know people: Annoying co-workers, unloving spouses, saucy dependents, secretive neighbours, like-minded board members, political foes.
You know romantic love, and write about hook-ups between social workers and single bar owners, between artists and best friends, and affairs among co-workers. You know about first love, parental love, unrequited love. Self-love. Write about it.
You think of your love for animals and make your main character a zoologist, a veterinarian, a dog-walker. A pet owner.
You know what it is like to lose a child, a brother, a sister, a transgendered friend. You know loss. You know sleepless nights and the truest definitions of “tragedy” and “aftermath”. You know the struggles associated with “survivor” and “suicide,” but you can deal with those words later.
You know emotion: fear, joy, guilt; hostility, curiosity, gratitude. Put your characters in situations you are familiar with: friendships, marriages, divorces, motor vehicle collisions, drug deals, funerals. How they behave in these situations is their business.
You create specific experiences from general ones. That’s what makes your characters—and you— come alive.
Inner life is what you know; it adds to the depth of your characters. You apply the emotion of your experiences and your characters become what you are not: plucky, daring, outspoken; empathetic, trusting. Fearless.
You write what you know, and this makes your telling memorable. That’s when it becomes a story.
Valerie Poulin is an internationally published poet and author of features, profiles, and general-interest articles for a variety of publications. She works as a freelance technical writer. Valerie also self-publishes chapbooks of poetry and small story collections. The Lakehead appears frequently in her work.