Friday, June 7, 2013

Never Been Kissed?! What to Write About When You Have Nothing to Write About

Sooner or later, every writer faces that topic she knows nothing about.  

For a student writer, it may come when you’re in class and the professor puts on the board a writing prompt that makes you go “Huh?”  

For fiction writers, it may be that moment in your story where your character comes across an artifact from the Ming Dynasty, and you know nothing about Chinese history, let alone the Ming Dynasty. 

The most common way of dealing with this problem (other than research, of course) is to fake it. You’re a creative writer, after all—so create. And, if you’re writing your own book, you may be able to transfer the artifact from the Ming Dynasty to one from, say, the U.S. Civil War.  

But if you’re writing for a professor or an editor, fudging may lead to disaster.

So what do you do?

Answer: Write about what you do know.

You may be surprised at what you know, or how you can turn a writing situation to your advantage.

When I was in college, one of my professors tried to get the class to relate to a particular story by making us write about our first kiss. The problem was, even as a strapping college freshman, I still had not had a first kiss.

The worst part, of course, was being a college freshman and admitting I hadn't kissed a girl. Guys are supposed to get around to that stuff by age 15, or so our culture tells us. If you’re shy around girls, you don’t admit it.  If dating isn’t a priority for you, you keep quiet so your peers don’t think less of you.

And here was a college professor asking me to describe a deeply personal experience I hadn’t had yet.

Well, admitting that I'd never kissed a girl wouldn't do. And I didn't have it in me to make up an experience. But, as I sat there and studied the prompt, I realized there was a way to fulfill the assignment and preserve my dignity.

It turned out that I had, in fact, had a first kiss.

When I was five, a neighbor girl pressed me against her parents’ garage and started kissing me. This apparently continued until her mother glanced out from the house and yelled for her stop.

In college, I barely remembered the incident, but I did remember my mother telling me about it—and teasing me over it—for years after.  That embarrassing experience—being kissed is always embarrassing to five-year-old boys—remained vivid enough that I was able to recreate it for the assignment.

The professor even loved my novel approach so much she shared my essay with the class.

The lessons I learned from this?

  • Play politician—if you can’t write to the spirit of the assignment, write to the letter.  (“It depends, your honor, on what kiss means.”)

  • Go for the emotion—even if it’s something which embarrasses you or makes you feel sad, chances are your reader will feel the same way (or at least see the humor in you feeling that way)—and that’s what you want: for the reader to feel something.

  • Recreate as many details as you can, fudge the rest—you can actually get away with this in a personal essay. No one’s going to track down that former five-year-old girl to see if she remembers things the way you do. At the same time, don’t fudge everything—too much fakery reveals itself.

  •  Look upon writing assignments as writing challenges—you’re in this to grow as a writer, not to play it safe.

  • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable—audiences like vulnerability because they’re vulnerable, too.  Showing that you’re comfortable with your human side gives them permission to be comfortable with theirs.

The bottom line in fiction as well as personal writing is to tell an entertaining story. If you can get that kind of mileage out of being kissed or not being kissed, it’s all good.

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Dennis Young said...

Good blog post, Greg. Now do we get to read the story you wrote?

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Alas, I don't think I have it anymore.

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