Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Knowledge versus Feeling: Does it matter?

This week’s question (writers: knowing vs. feeling) took me by surprise. At first glance, I thought ‘Oh. This is easy. I straddle the fence, doing equal shares of each.’

Yet, when the brass hit the balls, and I got ready to blog my thoughts on the subject, I did a little investigating into my own writing. What I discovered astounded me.

On the whole, I swing toward the ‘write what you know’ side(*gasp!)

Believe me, that didn’t settle well. You see, I fancy myself a rather eclectic writer, and I have always believed a balance of the two –knowing and feeling – is essential for a well-rounded author. However, when faced with the fact that my own works tipped a scale heavily to one side, I became rather depressed about it.

Until I realized – I write what I know because I’ve lived a rather full, colorful and eventful life. Every step, breath, moment and in each situation lived, I gain another treasured nugget of knowledge, good to stash in my writers pouch of interesting things to write about.

It also helps I am what you call a method writer. More often than not, my writing research leads me down the path of ‘do it, live it, achieve it, and make it your story’, so feeling isn’t mere speculation; it becomes first class knowledge.

In other words, you’ve heard of cliché ‘been there, done that’? Well, I have, several times, grasped the lessons, collected the refrigerator magnets and have lived to tell the tales (whether tall tales or not, I let the reader decide.)

For instance:

  • thanks to my bi-polarism, I’ve held more unusual blue-collar jobs than the average Joe.  I’ve even had a few professional jobs, including law office manager, intake coordinator, a soldier, stripper and a licensed chaplain. 
  • I’ve lived in both luxurious and impoverished conditions. I grew up on a farm, lived on a military base, in a real log cabin with no modern connivances, in many cities, and in homeless shelters and on the streets. 
  • I’ve dined at five-star restaurants, ate all sorts of exotic foods, been a vegetarian, a fast food junkie and I’ve also eaten bugs (by choice), dug food out of garbage cans and ate my own vomit. 
  • I’ve participated in riots, protests, love-ins, peace rallies, the worship of several religions, traveled with community theaters, motorcycle gangs and dance troups, and have attended every sort of  music event, comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy convention you can think of.
  • I’ve drank, experimented with some drugs, woken up with friends, strangers and  with no memories (there are even blank weeks), ran with both the wrong and the righteous crowds (and sometimes at the SAME time!)
  • I’ve seen people raped, beaten, stabbed, shot and killed.  I’ve been scared and remained hidden, the guilt forever with me. I’ve been brave and fought the attacking person.
  • I’ve been both hero and villain, sinner and saint. 
  • I’ve saved some people’s lives, held others while they died. 
  • I’ve had tons of money. I’ve lost everything. I’ve been frivolous, I’ve been a miser. I’ve re-established my whole identity twice. I have stolen and I have been robbed. 
  • I’ve been in jail cells, holding cells, padded cells and isolated community communes. I’ve appeared in court many times (on either side of the law), have explored sewers/underground tunnels, haunted houses, abandoned mines and caves.
  • I’ve experianced my world sensually, sexually, whole-heartedly and sometimes with trepidation and reservation.
  • I’ve courted death, I’ve tried to kill myself and I have fought hard to live and survive.
  • I’ve been the life of the party, the recluse, the introverted and the extroverted. I’ve been a part of a huge family, I’ve been married, single, divorced, separated and the only one left standing at the end of the day.
  • I have experienced every emotion known to man – I’ve loved, been loved, hated and have been hated, and all that is in between.

With all those experiences (chosen and forced) under my belt, I have much to draw from to write what I know. However, I can’t rely on my well-earned battle scars to carry me through. As determined as I am to live my stories, there are some things I will NEVER know. And for that, I have to reach down into my writer’s arsenal and withdraw the tactic of ‘feel.’

  • I will never know what it’s like to be handsome, a size 00 or to have a real third eye or antenna protruding from my forehead.
  • I will never know what it’s like to be a Native American Indian, a vampire, a werewolf, or a superhero with amazing powers.
  • I will never know what it’s like to give birth vaginally, or to have a successful adoption.
  • I will never know what riding a west bound train in the 1880’s felt like, what it was like to shiver in a gas-filled fox hole in WWI, or to be trapped in New Orleans when Katrina hit.
  • I will never know what it’s like to be a cop, a fireman, a doctor, a serial killer, or a  beloved/despised God of the Universe.
  • I will never know what it’s like to live on another planet, to become a pregnant man, to be a lead singer on stage or to own an exotic sex slave from the orient.
  • And I will never, ever know what it’s like to bungee jump (Never. Ain’t gonna do it.)

But, you know these damn characters we create. Tricky little bastards, the lot of them. You give them breath, and they take over the page. There will be circumstances and situations that come up in a story and just when you have it figured out (either go with the knowledge or the feel), something changes. 

That’s when being a writer truly comes alive for me – I believe I’m at my peak as a writer when I can combine my hard core realism (knowledge) with my soft porn 
fantasy (feeling/Internet research). 

For instance – let’s say I want to write about a past prime prostitute whose had a bit of bad luck lately. For this character, I can draw on my experiences of street living, the flavors, textures, smells, sounds that shape those who have experienced the rough side of life. Having your body the only thing left to offer – and yet, being rejected again and again, because you’re no longer young looking. Sex with strangers, sex without love, feeling worthless, and being so desperate, that you want to end it all. The only thing left to cover in this piece is the actual selling of the body – and although I may NOT have had that particular experience, in the past, I have sold my soul for less. There’s gotta be a similarity between the two feelings. 

Or, let’s shoot for another situation – let’s say something along the lines of going on a cruise ship, getting drugged, mistakenly kidnapped by Dungeon and Dragon role players and taken to New Zealand, where the character wakes up in 1760’s, in a Governor’s mansion, forced into a domination role, made to whip the owner’s grandmother - who is actually a time traveler from the 25th century…. (Whew. No, I’m not this kinky. I was just trying to make up something that would be hard for me to wing it one-way.)

So, I would look at it this way: 

  • I’ve never been on a cruise, but I’ve been out in the open water, and fortunately, I used to watch a crap load of the Love Boat. 
  • I have first hand knowledge about getting drugged and loss of memory, but nothing about being kidnapped – but wait! I have been tied up against my will – surely there are some similar feelings (helplessness/fear) there? 
  • Okay – D & D role players – weird people, all familiar territory. Easy. 
  • New Zealand? I KNOW I have some friends on Face Book from there. I’ll touch base. But what about  New Zealand in the 1760’s? Did it even exist? That there will definitely be some Internet/paper research. However, I have seen pictures of period mansions and fashions, so that will help in the draft.  
  • Domination? Totally got that covered, and I’ve played with a variety of whips (that comes from living on a farm and attending that BDSM convention/workshop) to know enough on what to use for what damage, etc.
  • What  about the grandmother? Hmmm. That might be a little tough. Let’s add a twist, change it to a cross dressing grandfather.
  • And as for the time travel….

Well, you get my drift. You see how my mind works… (scary, eh?)

Bottom line? In a perfect world, the balance between writing what you know and writing what you feel would be equal. 

However, I believe this swings according to the author’s age, maturity level, comfort with the dimensions of the writing craft, life experiences and how far the writer is willing to go in order to bring that research to life so the story will be both believable and entertaining to the reader.

Now, where’s that website devoted to historic 1760’s mansions in New Zealand… What? It sounds like a damn good story to me….


  1. George,
    I love your list of things you'll never know...When it comes down to it, my list would probably be a hundred times the ones I know. I learn intuitively (don't give me a set of instructions anywhere) I use my past to draw from, and pick and choose the reality I subscribe to. That probably puts me square in the leagues of Crazy Person U, but I'm proud of it anyway. Coping mechanism.

    I always enjoy reading your posts, like my treat for slogging my way through another tough week. So far, this whole new year has been a doozie for me: very up and down. I've started being more careful about how I say things. Kind of refreshing to read you, Oh Fearless One!

  2. Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...whoa...whoa...whoa................whoa!

    Ate your own vomit? That's disgusting. I was going to say "nauseating," but I realized you'd take it as an appetizer.

    My, you certainly do have the experiences (and it's not too late to be a cop or fireman or serial killer (well, maybe not a serial killer).

    Oh, and if you talk to C.J., let her know that your experiences actually do happen to people outside of New Jersey.

  3. George,
    What a history you almost reveal here. Funny, scary, poignant but always with a wrter's big- eyed perception. Thanks!

  4. Hi Sharon, Gregory and Arletta (<--that's a pretty name!)

    I just got in from shoveling a mountain of snow and helped getting a van unstuck. Whew! I am a bit winded to say the least. A neighbor came to plow the drivee - he had one of those ORV with a snow plow on front - man, I gotta get me one of those!

    Thanks for taking the time to reply on this snowy Wednesday.

  5. Sharon -

    Ah! So that's where I know you from! Your one of the alumni from Crazy Person U! I knew I luved you for some reason!

    Fearless? (*Snort) Though I would never call me a coward, I feel I fall short of fearless. I won't bungee jump, remember?

  6. Yes - Gregory - sing it with feeling! You would do Morris Albert proud.

    I am past the age to be an actual cop or fireman -- don't know if that is a state by state rule, but in Michigan, the cut off age for entering the academies is 35 years old.

    Yeah, the vomit thing wasn't one of my prouder moments. But when you're homeless and the first meal you've eaten in weeks gets chucked up b/c your stomach can't handle it - well, I don't need to go into detail. Just a little nuance that shows the difference between researching homelessness and actually living it.

    As for CJ - I can understand where that perception comes from (*grin) I get asked all the time - "And all this happened to you in Michigan?" (for the record, no. Just 3/4 of it!)

    What can I say? With my state being hit by the riots in the 60s's and economic disasters in the 80's and currently (resulting in a flux of the population to get the h3ll out of dodge) - Michigan resembles an apocalyptic state Charleston Heston would be proud to live in.

  7. Arletta - such a nice thing to say! I am here to entertain, every other Wednesday... though whether my humor decides to show up on that day, is a cat of another kitten...

  8. Not bungee jumping is just not being stupid! Then again, you're talking to a person who has skydived from 12,500 feet and lived to tell the story without any sprains or broken bones. I guess I did it because our entire family did it-all in the air at once-all 6 of us. And because I did it, everyone else had to, I was the first to jump.

    How's that for a stupid idea? But it was life changing!

  9. Sharon - whoa - you have my utmost respect and I humbly bow to your bravery!

    I couldn't do it! That's why when I was stationed at Ft Bragg, I was a "Leg" (someone who didn't jump out of planes) - and in a sea of red and black berets, (the sign of 82nd Airborne Division and the Rangers) the old camouflage barrel cap was a sign of weakness and 'Legs' were looked down upon -- (until we were needed in Desert Shield/Storm).

    I don't think I could do what the Navy Seals do either -- I panic when water hits my face and in a lake or pool, I can't go past my chest in water (at least I can relate that phobia to a near drowning experience in high school.)

  10. Wow, George... you HAVE lived quite a colorful life... You should write an autobiography... I'm sure it would be a best-seller. Maybe even an Oprah's pick. Then a studio could option it and make a movie of it and you can say you have lived a TECHNOcolorful life... (emphasis on the TECHNO...). But I AM sure it would make a very interesting read. Sounds like it would be full of twists and surprises. Bet there's even a conspiracy theory or two in there (say, I wonder if Oliver Stone would be available to direct?).

    Anyway, I look foreward to reading more about your COLORFUL past.... Great post!


  11. You know, Thom, I get that alot - that I need to write my life story. And I usually look at the person(s) and say "Yeah, r-i-i-ight. Who would want to read a bi-polar's trip down the rabbit hole?" Or, if I am feeling rather manic at the time, I say "What? You sadistic or something? It would cause me great pain and depression to re-live all that crap!" (ha-ha)

    In all seriousness, I don't think I could sit down and write my life story. I really don't think it is all that interesting - and with my mood swings, I would be head hopping in my own auto-biography - and that would really confuse the reader. H#ll, it would confuse the writer too - as if living those things the first time around wasn't confusing enough....

    Besides, I think instead of shooting all my experiences in one wad, I'll just divvy them up among a throng of books.... pain and depression is easier to deal with in bite size pieces...