Back in January, I had a bad fall. I broke my collar bone so badly, in fact, that it was smashed into three pieces, and when the orthopedist looked at it, he walked out of the room, whistled to the x-ray technician and said, "Wooh, that's a nasty injury!" Surgery, right away, was the only way to fix it. Having never had surgery of any kind, I didn't know what to expect. The night before the procedure, I told my dad on the phone, "Well, maybe it will be good material for a novel some day!" My mother, who was with me that night and who has had three major, painful surgeries before, grimaced. As she told me later, she didn't want to tell me how bad it was going to be.
The pain in the twenty-four hours that followed the surgery, which was, incredibly, out-patient (thank you, overburdened health care system), was unlike any I'd ever known. It felt like a clamp had been placed on my shoulder, and a sadist with superhuman strength was squeezing it as hard as he possibly could, and then plying it backwards. There are far worse things, I know, unimaginable things. But they are just that to me: unimaginable. I haven't experienced them. And now I wonder -- having seen the extent of the gap between what I imagined the surgery and recovery would be like, and what it turned out to be -- is it possible to credibly write about something I haven't experienced firsthand?
The answer, of course, has to be yes. How else, as writers, can we create? But the first sentence uttered by most creative writing teachers is "Write what you know," and with good reason. Often the biggest missteps and least authentic passages in a piece of writing occur when an author has strayed so far beyond his or her experience, in either the emotional or the physical realm, that the reader can no longer suspend her disbelief, and the spell that is bewitchingly good writing is broken.
So I would like to know -- have you had to write about things you didn't know in your own work, and how have you faced the challenge? Research? Interviews?
Or perhaps a better question is -- what kind of truth matters most in our writing? Is it more important to be able to describe, in exact detail, the physical pain specific to shoulder surgery, or to be able to describe the way it feels to be vulnerable and injured, the way it feels to have your life derailed, the way it feels to fall and crack and depend on the people around you to recover?
Because those things, I already knew something about.