Balls of Steel™: Write What You Know ... or Not

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman talks about the adage "write what you know" when you tackle of project that's scope is beyond your worldview but too important not to bring to life.
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Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine, on Stephanie Palmer's list of “Top 10 Most Influential Screenwriting Bloggers,” and co-founder of Twitter's #Scriptchat. Her narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book,Slavery by Another Name, was selected for the Tracking Board's Top 25 Launch Pad Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb

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“Write what you know.” That was the number one piece of advice people gave me when I first started writing.

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So I did … until I realized I don’t know squat.

My first two scripts were boring as hell. Turns out, “what I know” wasn’t cinematic at all; it was self-indulgent.

Solution: I got a therapist. Now I talk to her about “what I know,” so I can let my creativity loose and write better stories.

The problem with writing “what we know” is it’s hard not to protect the protagonist who we so desperately identify with. When the feedback comes rolling in and reads, “She’s boring; I don’t get her motivations, and I don’t like her,” our instinct is to shoot the messenger when we should be thanking him. Instead of understanding the notes really say, “Your protagonist is boring,” some writers hear, “You are boring.”

Beyond writing “what we know,” too many writers put pen to paper and write about whom they know.

Newsflash: No one gives a rat’s ass about your grandpa.

I admit, even I have a rough outline of my own Grandpa Story in my files. My Sicilian, dark-haired, baby-blue, smoldering-eyed grandfather had connections with Mussolini, won the Irish Sweepstakes, squandered all his money on a Spanish countess … who subsequently dumped him … and he fled to America, tail between his legs while under the watchful eyes of the FBI. Sure, on the surface that may sound intriguing (and believe me, there are many more layers to his story), but until I can write it without filters, without worrying about what other family members would feel, without the instinct to protect him because his blood pulses through my veins, I won’t write it...

Because no one gives a rat’s ass about my grandpa either.

The cold fact is what we find exciting about our lives is usually boring as hell to others. However, there is a solution -- find the nuggets you can relate to and you'll bring authenticity to your story.

Let’s take Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) as an example -- our adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, exposing the continued slavery of African Americans post Civil War. What does a white girl raised in the New York State countryside by middle class, educated parents know about being an African-American slave in 1903, or even being a white, prejudiced Southerner living in that world?

Not so much.

Yet I was drawn to the story in a way I didn’t understand until I was deep into writing the adaptation.

While crafting the plantation scenes, I was eerily comfortable. Not with the brutality of them, but with the emotions of the men and women who were enslaved. Some of my friends suggested I must have been a slave in a past life. Maybe I was.

But as I kept writing, the story pulled feelings from me I hadn’t known existed. Then it finally hit me. While I had never been a slave, I could relate to these people simply because I knew what it felt like to be trapped and to have no control over my life. I used those familiar feelings to fuel the SBAN story.

I found something I could relate to and wrote about it, not in a literal way, but in a unique way.

When I asked last Sunday’s Scriptchat screenwriters if they write what they know, Rhys Howellexpressed it perfectly: “I try to write the emotions I know, in the situations I don’t.”

You might want to copy that one down.

In pondering my current writing projects, that’s exactly what I’m instinctively doing -- using my emotions more than the facts of my life to craft a story. After all, my main goal is to move people with my words. If I can find my own emotional connection to the story, then hopefully I can find it for my readers.

For all of you who are writing those scripts that are true stories, try giving yourself permission to stretch the truth and let your imagination and emotional core take over. Don’t stay married to the facts. Sometimes facts are boring. Instead take those facts and ask, “What do I suspect this person was feeling at the time this happened to them?” Or explore what you were feeling if it was a true event in your own world.

I asked those questions many times while writing SBAN, because I had no idea what these real-life historical figures felt. I only knew what their actions were. We had to create personalities where we had no concrete evidence of what made these people tick. We had to determine their wounds and character traits solely based on the actions they took in their lives. It was backwards character development. It works well when adapting nonfiction … which is exactly what a story about “what you know” often is.

So go ahead and write “what you know,” but try adding in a little of what you don’t know, too. If you can’t give yourself permission to do that, then allow me to wave my magic wand and release you from your chains.

Ironically, that is exactly what writing Slavery by Another Name did for me -- it freed me.

Please share any tips on writing nonfiction in the comments below. As always, if you have ideas for future Balls of Steel columns, or topics you’d like me to explore, email me at jeanne@jeannevb.com. Keep writing!

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