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.

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Comment by Deepa Agarwal on April 30, 2013 at 8:48am

First of all, hope you're feeling much better by now, Kamy. As for writing what we don't know about, I recall wondering how Tolstoy could write so convincingly about a woman torn between two men in Anna Karenina, also about a woman torn between her love for her child and her longing to be with her lover. As women writers we too try to enter the hearts and minds of male characters, even those who may be quite removed from our immediate experience and reality. But here I'm talking about truths which are universal and it is your own empathy for your characters that brings truth into your work.

For more concrete details research can take care of a lot, if it is meticulous and thorough. Again I feel the author's sensitivity to the character's situation--the pain or heartbreak that is communicated to the reader and adds credibility.

Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on April 29, 2013 at 10:57am

"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?"

The answer is obvious to me. I want to read about coping skills. Thanks for putting this in the form of a question. 

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on April 29, 2013 at 8:23am

Oh wow Elizabeth, how DO spiders mate?  And Tammy, congratulations on writing so movingly.  That can only be good.  I love the openness and thoughtfulness here -- and, Yehudit, I that Elie Wiesel quote, I think, from now on will be my guide.  Thanks for the good wishes RYCJ, and everyone else.:)

Comment by RYCJ on April 28, 2013 at 12:30am

Not sure if this has already been offered, but my best answer would be 'I can't imagine' because in as far as creative writing, the writer can only write what he or she knows...or sees/imagines, whether 'factual' or not. It's what makes creative writing, creative.

In your given description however, describing or the telling of an actual event, I as well couldn't 'imagine' a writer telling that event in any other way than the way it was experienced. And btw, I hope you are better. Gosh, I cringed just reading it.

That said, your experience reminds me of... let's say... child birth. Even a woman who's never given birth could imagine up an experience to plot into a creative work (based on no research whatsoever) and I'd be hard pressed to contradict the character's story, given the uniqueness of this adventure... at least going by the many tales I've heard, not including my own;-) 

Comment by Yehudit Reishtein on April 27, 2013 at 11:41am

Several of the posts remind of what Elie Wiesel said a few years ago (and I am paraphrasing here): Some things that never happened are true, and some things that actually happened are not true.

I think you can get at the "truth" of an experience without going through it yourself by a combination of research, empathy, and finding the emotional metaphor for it that rings true for you. Sitting on a quiet sunny afternoon in a six foot diameter cement sewer pipe which was used as a temporary bomb shelter was certainly nothing near the experience of the people who sat in that pipe at night with crying children while the rocket alert sirens sounded, but analyzing my own disquiet helped me imagine what it could be like for a fictional character. It requires stretching emotional and expressive muscles, but it can be done, and is done well by most really good writers. It's being willing to stretch those muscles and facing one's own disquiet and uneasiness that are the hard parts.

Comment by Tammy Flanders Hetrick on April 26, 2013 at 5:18pm

Interesting timing for this post! Last weekend I read the first 20 pages of my novel at an art event. The story is about a woman who loses her best friend to cancer. I love these characters so much, after living with them for five years, and I really got into the reading. Afterwards several in the audience came up to me to say how moved they were. Then one woman told me she just lost her sister, so she knew how I felt. I froze. She looked at me and said she knew this couldn't be fiction because it was too real, and my reading of it was so personal. I didn't know what to say! I felt like a fraud. I stammered about how it was a combination of episodes in peoples' lives, which is kind of true, but really - it's fiction! I questioned myself all evening, what right did I have to write about something that actually happens to others, but hadn't happened to me. But then I realized: what's worse - claiming something is real when it's not? Or claiming something isn't real when, actually, it is - if you do it right.  

Comment by Elizabeth Enslin on April 26, 2013 at 12:30pm

You raise such great questions, Kamy. These days, I tend to have the most fun writing when I write to discover or learn. And some of the most surprising insights come when I stretch my knowledge both inwardly and outwardly: research details I'm fuzzy on (how do spiders mate?) and then dig deeper into understanding my own reactions.

Hope your collar bone is healing up well.

Comment by Elaine Kehoe on April 26, 2013 at 9:11am

I think what you said about writing "the way it feels" is what a writer really needs to do, and empathy and imagination can fill in experience gaps there. I wrote a short short story about a woman who had had an abortion at age seventeen and how it affected the rest of her life. I've never had an abortion (though I have a friend who did), never even been pregnant, but I put myself in that woman's place and imagined what she might be feeling. I received many positive comments on that story, even from women who had miscarriages.

Comment by Kamy Wicoff on April 26, 2013 at 6:48am

First of all, many, many thanks to all of you for your good wishes on my speedy recovery!  I'm doing much better, though I will have to wait until next spring until I join my sons at the batting cages, and I hate sitting on the sidelines. :)

Olga, I love you what you said about "write what you feel."  I think that is probably the key, in conjunction with the kinds of research others have described.  Julie, I also got a physicist to talk to me for quite a long time about my book when I was just getting started (there is a physicist who is a main character) and was so grateful for his generosity.  It really helps to dig and and *very* importantly to have readers and editors who may know more than you do to consult.

Comment by Paula Lozar on April 25, 2013 at 8:17pm

Take a look at the article that Natylie Baldwin linked to below -- very good!  I especially liked his comments about the bad effects of "intention" on fiction.  David Morrell (the thriller writer) said something in a talk a few years ago that stuck with me:  Trust your characters.  If you try to get a character to do something "out of character" to make a point, or move the plot forward, the story dies.

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