“Write what you know” is either the best or the worst advice ever given to a fledging writer. This dichotomy is amplified when the advice is given to someone writing a work of fiction inspired by deep, raw personal experience—not from-the-sidelines observation but in-the-huddle emotion. It’s the stuff of amateur novels doomed forever to desk drawers, some say; it’s what compelling, authentic fiction is made of, others argue. In my case, it’s been both.
I was newly installed at the editor’s desk at Writer’s Digest when a close friend was murdered in a domestic violence incident over the 2008 Christmas holiday. I reeled, I anguished, and, when the new year arrived in spite of everything, I threw myself into work. It was the only way in those early weeks that I could stand being alone with my thoughts.
I’d always wanted to try my hand at a novel but never had a story I felt wholly invested in telling, and the common gap between the desire to write and the lack of passion for a subject is not necessarily about shame or lack of discipline. In some ways, it simply separates the naive from the weathered, the young from the not so young, and, eventually, those who are thinking about being writers from those who write. Now I had something to say, I was certain. I just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
Months later, I began to labor over a story that stemmed from what had happened. The basic framework was familiar: the friendship, the murder, the grief, but the protagonist was not based on me—as I was quick to assure myself and everyone else. After all, she made decisions, in her quest to cope, that were completely opposite from those I’d made. I was self-aware enough to know I was working through something personal on the page, but still thought it was a worthy draft of a story.
Indeed, after years of rewrites, I did secure an agent. I’d done it, I thought. It was on submission for roughly forever, the upside of which was that I had time to reconsider how I felt about the story, and to think about the fact that a tsunami of dread hit me whenever anyone dared ask me what the book was about. I was not (red flag!) capable of saying that I’d written it without saying why I’d written it. And I didn’t like to talk about why.
It never sold, which was disappointing, of course. But a voice in the back of my mind whispered, “I’m glad.”
I wrote another novel, a different novel, purposely and triumphantly inspired by no significant personal experience whatsoever, and the process was joyous. Gone was the agony of “working through” anything other than a character arc. Writing was fun again, and it seemed that in those years of rejection and rewrites, I’d learned to do it better.
I got a new agent and the book sold in a two-book deal. It was time to think about what I’d write next.
I was starting to figure out what it was I really wanted to say about the questions surrounding domestic violence. And fortunately, as I now knew how little I wanted to assure anyone that a character was not me, I’d also had time to broaden my grasp of the issue well beyond my own mystifying, heartbreaking experience of losing my friend. I’d volunteered at the YWCA; I’d met other victims; I’d talked with too many acquaintances who also knew people who’d been in bad situations. I thought a lot about that viewpoint we share—from arm’s length.
From that distance—years passed, perspectives shifted—I began an entirely new book. The result, Not That I Could Tell, has no framework resembling that unsold story but channels the heart it failed to convey.
I don’t regret the first, failed novel; how could I? To anyone grappling with the question of whether it’s a terrible or a wonderful idea to write from such raw personal experience, I think my account shows that it can be both—sometimes even at the same time. If you’re asking the question at all, it’s worth the effort to try to find out the answer for yourself.
Jessica Strawser is editor-at-large for Writer’s Digest and the author of the novels Almost Missed You and Not That I Could Tell, both from St. Martin’s.