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Don’t Write What You Know, Write What You Find

By Sara Batkie

There are certain, agreed-upon tools (or, more accurately, emotional muscles) that should be in any writer’s kit: patience, resilience, a well-stretched capacity for empathy. Perhaps the most difficult one to talk about, at least for me, is inspiration. Where do ideas come from? It’s a pretty standard question that aspiring writers want answers to, and for good reason. We all want to hope, especially early on, that there’s some secret formula to a knock-em-dead story. But muses are capricious creatures; sometimes they appear in that light-bulb over the head flash, and sometimes they’re feeding you useful information over the course of weeks or years that eventually are cobbled together into a finished piece. This is why I think curiosity is a much more useful thing to talk about. Where do my ideas come from? I’m not always entirely sure, until I am.

We all know the ubiquitous adage to “write what you know.” It was drilled into me from my earliest workshops. But as someone who had a fairly uneventful Midwestern upbringing (for which, I should add, I’m grateful), I never found it very helpful when it came to setting words on the page. My adolescence spent watching movies with friends and doing SAT-prep didn’t prove very fruitful and my early efforts lacked sizzle. But somewhere along the line I realized I was going about this all wrong. Writing what you know doesn’t mean actually writing about yourself. Every author draws on emotional memory, family stories, or even whole conversations they’ve had in their fiction. This work, at least for me, is often done without intention; it happens naturally, as I write stories about places and people far removed from my own actual experiences.

I can point to the “inspirations” behind almost every one of the stories in my collection Better Times, and pretty much none of them came from my actual life. Many were sparked while engaging in the other popular pastime for writers: reading. It’s something of a joke between me and my other literary-inclined friends (and the demons who designed The Good Place) that New Yorkers are for placing in an unread stack for eternity. But at least three of the stories in my collection came about from pieces I first read in one of their issues. Even small details in larger profiles have managed to find their way into my work.

To take just one example, I struggled for years to find an engine for a story about a twenty-something woman who is diagnosed with cancer and fears how unrecognizable it might render her body. It wasn’t until reading “The Itch,” a 2008 piece by Atul Gawande that included a description of an unusual therapy for phantom limbs that the answer dropped in my lap, which I then lifted wholesale into “Cleavage,” which ended up becoming my first published story.

Another story, “When Her Father Was an Island,” was borne from an exercise that Hannah Tinti, co-founder and executive editor of One Story, introduced me to: perusing a newspaper’s obituaries, particularly for those figures whose names you don’t recognize. That’s how I discovered the life story of Hiroo Onoda, a WWII Japanese Imperial Army officer who remained at his post in the Philippines until 1974, believing the war was still ongoing up until his belated surrender. I was fascinated by the possibilities such a relentlessly dedicated figure might have to offer and set about imagining myself into such a mindset. A well-written obituary is an art in and of itself, and they often drop tantalizing tidbits for the omnivorous artist to pick up and make her own. While the wife and daughter Hiroo left behind were my invention, many of the surreal details of his ordeal made it into the narrative, such as the leaflet he and his fellow soldiers found and believed to be Allied propaganda.

It’s not just written texts, either. My story “Laika” was inspired by a kismet combination of watching the 80’s Scandinavian film My Life as a Dog and then happening upon Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” during a trip to MoMA. The first germ of the lead character in “North Country, Early Morning” came from seeing televangelists while flipping through channels when I was home for Christmas. I sketched out the plot for “Foreigners” after watching some episodes of The Americans and asking myself the much-less sexy question of what a neighbor might make of the revelation that someone living on her block was a spy for a hostile government.

In a way, all writers are like that neighbor eavesdropping on the more-interesting people next door. This is not a bad thing! For too long I bought into the myth that time spent on television shows, or an old movie, or an article on ice sheets breaking off the Alaska coastline was time wasted because I wasn’t writing. I didn’t realize how much I was absorbing just by being curious and thoughtful about the things I was consuming. So go forth, writers! Be open! And don’t worry too much about being “authoritative” on the page. To paraphrase the great Amy Bloom, “Who you are seeps out in the holes in the letters.” Find what interests you and write about it. You’ll be surprised by what you already know.

 


SARA BATKIE is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in September 2018. She received her MFA from New York University. Stories of hers have been honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a notable mention in the 2011 edition of Best American Short Stories. She was born in Bellevue, Washington and grew up mostly in Iowa, but currently makes her home in Brooklyn where she works as the Writing Programs Director for The Center for Fiction.