Becoming A Storyteller: Write What You Feel, or, Holy Sh*t Where’s My Kid?

journalThe January 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine features and interview with bestselling author Lee Child. Child is the creator of the ever popular Jack Reacher character, who was recently portrayed by Tom Cruise in what might be one of the most egregious casting liberties taken by Hollywood. (The character Reacher stands 6’5″, weighing over 200 pounds, with ice blue eyes and dirty blonde hair, and is-by all accounts, not an alien. Tom Cruise, however, is 5’7″ and, well, you know.)

In the interview, Lee Child provides his evidence to debunk the long-held writing cliché: ‘write what you know’.

The worse [writing advice] is probably Write what you know. Especially in this market. In the thriller genre, for instance, nobody knows anything that’s worth putting in. There are three people in the world who have actually lived this stuff. And so it’s not about what you know. [Write] what you feel is really excellent advice. Because if you substitute Write what you feel , then you can expand that into-if you’re a parent, for instance, especially if you’re a mother, I bet you’ve had an episode where for five seconds you lost your kid at the mall. You turn around, your kid is suddenly not there, and for five seconds your heart is in your mouth and you turn the other way, and there he is. So you’ve gotta remember the feel of those five seconds-that utter panic and disorientation. And then you blow that up: It’s not five seconds, it’s five days-your kid has been kidnapped, your kid is being held by a monster. You use what you feel and expand it, right up as far as you can, and that way you get a sort of authenticity.

When I read this, I immediately thought of the time when I lost my kid for about five seconds in a Toys ‘R Us. Jason was close to three at the time, still wobbly on his feet and gaining more confidence with every well-placed step. I can’t remember why we were at the store, but we were at a juncture between the sporting goods section and the action figures. I was pushing a cart, but he wanted down to play with some of the over-sized bouncy balls strewn in the aisle.

While slapped his chubby little hand on a rubber ball, I turned to replace something on an adjacent end cap. I can’t remember how long I was looking whatever it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a moment or two. And when I turned, I didn’t see Jason.

The word panic doesn’t do the feeling justice. Child’s rendition of your heart in your mouth seems closer. It’s paralytic.

Wide-eyed, I stepped around the end cap. Nothing. I looked down the sporting goods aisle. Nothing.

I called out his name, my voice raising a few octaves. Tunnel vision. I whipped my head around, noting the other adults and children, but I was alone. I turned down the next aisle.

There he was, chugging after the rubber ball that had scooted away. I scooped him up and wrapped him in a hug. My heart still hammered in my throat, and took several minutes before sinking back to its proper place. I don’t think he was out of my sight for a single moment for the rest of the day. And I don’t think my hands stopped shaking for days.

I know what Lee Child means, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know much, so if I wrote strictly on what I “know”, my stories wouldn’t be as nearly as interesting. At least to me. I write because I want the stories in my head told. I want to enjoy them, and I wouldn’t be caught dead reading about a former coffee-making, middle school media specialist/basketball coach. There aren’t many conflicts beyond the generic or benign. To me.

Joseph Conrad once said: “Make the reader see.” I think it goes a bit beyond that though. We need to make the reader feel, as Child said. So as I continue my journey toward Storyteller, I need to be vigilant in framing a narrative, a chapter, a scene, a line that is evocative. I think as writers we all strive for the authentic, and if writing those scenes pushes us–just imagine what it can do for our readers.

What do you think of Child’s take?

4 thoughts on “Becoming A Storyteller: Write What You Feel, or, Holy Sh*t Where’s My Kid?

  1. I never understood the ‘write what you know’ thing when it came to my beloved genre of fantasy. I never cast a spell or charged into battle on a horse, so it always felt like a moot point. The alternative that I came up with was to gain varied experiences (short of doing drugs) and get a better idea of the emotions that I could put into my characters. So, the ‘write what you feel’ idea makes a lot more practical sense to me.

    As for a runaway child, my son tends to demand the cart or holding hands. The one time he didn’t do this was when he was two and we were in the mall in front of the Disney Store. I was walking ahead while my wife was holding his hand. I’m not sure what happened to distract her, but I caught the motion of a red-jacketed child charging off into the crowd with a wild cackle. I think I froze everyone in a 50 foot radius when I yelled for him and ran after him. Learned my lesson to always be next to or behind him with my hand ready to snag him by the collar.

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    • The ‘write what you know’ thing is funny. Like you said, it only really seems applicable with certain types of writing or certain genres. And I’ve had both my kids walk away in the same manner you described. Crowded stores are the worst. My kids are 8 and 5 now, and its really the crowded stores that still keep them tethered to my hand or the cart.

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