When I was five, I wrote my first story. It was about a little boy in China who tried to dig a hole to America, but he only got so far before he ran into a pile-up of American kids trying to dig their way to China. I named the boy Shang because it was the only male Asian name that I knew, courtesy of Mulan. The American children and the Chinese children soon ran into children from all over the world, all trying to navigate to other countries equipped only with their plastic shovels and sheer will. Somewhere in our planet’s molten core, these children formed a community where they never had to come inside while they were playing, a perpetual underground childhood where the only traffic was caused by an abundance of ice cream trucks.
I read the story aloud to my mother, my most loyal (and only) readership. The reading was accompanied by Crayola illustrations, and she praised my artistry despite my lack of fine motor skills. When I stopped reading, she asked me how the story ended. “They don’t go back to their parents above ground?”
I told her that this subterraneous fantasy world was all the happy ending the story needed. My mother pointed out that if we were to dig a hole starting in America straight through the Earth, we would actually end up in the Indian Ocean. Imagine the horror. My mother rarely understood my obscure protagonists or lack of fairy tale tropes, and she often fixated on the logistical details that I chose to overlook, but she encouraged my bourgeoning writing career nonetheless.
In middle school, I wrote a story from the point of view of a middle-aged Russian woman who found out that she couldn’t have children and, in her depressed state, decided to take her own life. After her failed suicide attempt, she finds herself in an ethereal purgatory that turned out to be an orphanage of sorts. She ended up living out the rest of her half-life in this magical world, taking care of the children she was never able to have.
In high school, I wrote a historical fiction piece from the perspective of John Wilkes Booth, and then another one about the Serbian assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. My English teacher was concerned.
Growing up reading Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia had left me with the idea that the best stories were out of this world, fantastical universes hidden in wardrobes and filled with regal lions that spoke and owls that delivered school letters on our eleventh birthdays. I thought I had to write my stories in worlds other than my own, with people who couldn’t realistically exist getting into situations that I could never be in. My friends, my school, my run-down Jeep and small town were not fodder for great fiction; they weren’t extraordinary enough.
In a deviation from my fantasy-minded younger self, I’ve just started a novel that may or may not be finished one day, and it’s from the perspective of a 21-year-old girl. She is witty, strong and kind, but she falls for smooth-talking boys, gets C’s on occasion, and worries what people think of her when she walks into a room.
I’m writing about that teary phone call home to my mother, and that time my roommate got her heart broken so we drove around our college town for hours listening to that Ben Howard song on repeat because that one line of the chorus made us feel like at least one person completely understood. Just keep driving, and the Virginia highways will dull the sharpness of those callous words he said.
I’m writing about when my uncle died of cancer and I stood in a funeral home surrounded by people who shared my last name and freckles, and despite the abrupt sadness and grief of it all, you suddenly know who is going to be there when everything falls apart. I’m writing about that morning in the coffee shop when he tapped his shoe against mine and smiled coyly, and it was such a flirty cliché that I burst out laughing.
Hemingway said to “write what you know.” Some writers find this to be limiting, assuming it excludes science fiction and historic epics and Hogwarts and Narnia. Fiction, after all, possesses the ability to transcend the truth and limitations of fact. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to mean writing your own autobiographical details, limited by people you’ve actually met and places you’ve actually been. It can mean “write what you know is important”, and “write what you know is good and matters and constitutes a story worth telling”. By this definition, Lewis, Tolkein and Rowling write what they know very well.
But the more I write, the more I choose to write what I know to matter, in a world that I know very well.
I still believe that fictional worlds can be the most spotless mirrors for the real world, and sometimes the only way to say the truth is to make up a story revolving around it. As the setting becomes more fantastic, the conflict can become clearer and the character flaws can become more apparent. J.K. Rowling does this well, plunging a classic tale of good vs. evil into this invented world where all of our inner demons are forced to present themselves. Her fiction transcends her own life experiences, but she still writes what she knows to be brave, selfless and good in this world. C.S. Lewis wrote what he knows about love and war and religion by creating a fantasy world that told these stories best.
But I found my voice when I decided to write what I know, and I know suburban towns, awkward first dates, and what it feels like to be a middle child.
And if nobody ever reads it, that’s okay with me. Maybe when I’m eighty-two years old, playing blackjack in a Long Island retirement home, I’ll write a story about my neighbor’s Alzheimer’s and what it felt like to meet my first grandchild. And I’ll be able to pull out an old notebook that my 21-year-old self wrote her story in, and I’ll remember what it felt like that night with the Blue Moon, the Van Morrison and the laughter around the bonfire. How it felt when it was 3 a.m. and, despite the exhaustion and next-day responsibilities, we all enjoyed each other too much to go to sleep. This is my real world, what I know best, and there has to be a story in there worth telling too.