I wasn't born of a shut-in mother, and I've never been married to a cheating man. I haven't experienced the onset of dementia. I am not a recovering drug addict. And yet the main characters of my undergrad thesis were all of these and more. As one who eschews the "write what you know" cliché, I'm not alone—or that's what I gather from a recent Times article about Jeffrey Eugenides, who created a yeast genetics specialist for the main character of his latest novel, The Marriage Plot.
Eugenides, you may not be surprised to know, is not an expert in genetics. The article points out that science is not really something Eugenides has a lot of experience with. But when he has the yeast guy explain his research—"We’re trying to find out why the progeny of a given cell division can acquire different developmental fates"—it somehow resonates with science dorks and laymen.
Herein lies the beauty of imagination coupled with the internet, and topped off with the intuition to know just how much information to include so it looks like this is stuff you’ve actually experienced. For Eugenides, this included visiting a yeast geneticist; but for the most part he did it all on his own, imagining, researching, and imagining some more. And it worked. Mark Rose, a yeast geneticist at Princeton, said Eugenides “really does manage to capture not only the field, but the setting...All of that was spot on.”
The more people I talk to—the more people I read—the more it seems like writing what you know is…an option. I like to think of it as a good place to start. All of the four stories I wrote for my thesis did have some grounding in my life: I was a runner (the shut-in mother), I’d spent time with children (the cheating husband), I’ve worked in a convenience store (dementia woman), and I’m from a town with meth problems. Then I let my imagination roll.
I am still not any of the things I wrote about in my undergraduate collection of stories. If I were, perhaps I would see discrepancies in the way my 22 year-old self described the worlds I'd created. But the neat thing for all of us living and writing in this world, in this time, is being able to use our imaginations, and then Google some things, and then talk to a few people and visit a historical site, and go on from there.
Aside from a few facts about dementia, the most concrete thing I learned during the whole undergraduate fiction writing experience was this: write what you know to start. And then there's plenty more out there to fuel the process, once you just get going.