Write What You Know

person with paper for a head leaning on a desk holding a candlestick

Neliza DrewApr 10·5 min read (originally published on Medium)

“Writer’s Block II” by Drew Coffman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I keep thinking about this quote and variations of it:

So when I meet with those beginner students to discuss their first stories, I ask them to think of stories only they can write. Stories they know but have never read anywhere. Stories they always tell but never write down. That’s what this question is really about. Or could be. If the questioner asked it of themselves more often than they asked other people. — Alexander Chee

I don’t want to “steal” stories from others. I don’t want to appropriate or write about people I can’t fully know or take up digital shelf space from #OwnVoices writers. Though, the hashtag and people trying to gatekeep it have caused a few problems lately with outing people who weren’t out and reports of publishers and reviewers using it as a weapon to pigeonhole writers from marginalized groups instead of another tool to promote work to people who might enjoy it.

Seems every good-intentioned thing eventually gets twisted and misused.

Lately, though, I find it impossible to write fiction. My brain tends to get caught up in rules a little too easily. For someone who generally makes people uncomfortable with my weirdness, I try overly hard to pretend to be like others and make them comfortable. My psychiatrist assures me I am not autistic, just very very ADHD. There’s overlap in the symptoms of the two, but there are also contradictions in the two so sometimes one masks the other. It honestly doesn’t matter as the only one for which drugs, medications, are useful is ADHD and that’s all the psychiatrist concerns himself with. Ritalin only does so much, and it’s taken me discovering neurodivergent corners of social media like Twitter and YouTube to realize some of the things I’d chalked up to “being a bad person” were related to ADHD and could be worked around with a planner and every alarm option on my phone.

Perhaps if I were a student in one of Chee’s classes, he’d suggest I write about becoming distracted looking for shoes I don’t intend to wear and not leaving in time to make it to appointments on time. Maybe that’s the story I’ve told too many times, but I’m not sure it counts as interesting. There’s no plot.

That’s actually the problem a lot of the time with ADHD: no plot. Tasks that seem perfectly reasonably linear somehow become a weeklong choose-your-own adventure game. Wash the dishes becomes refill the soap dispenser becomes refilling the one in the bathroom becomes organizing lipsticks becomes redoing eyeshadow becomes selfies in the yard becomes hugging ducks becomes videos of lizards becomes scrolling Instagram becomes getting out watercolors becomes looking for that one washi tape roll that isn’t “too sticky” becomes highlighting tasks in my planner becomes reminding myself to wash the sheets becomes cleaning the cat box becomes taking pictures of flowers becomes YouTube videos on cleaning luffa becomes remembering there’s still one next to the sink which finally turns into finishing the dishes.

James Joyce might have been able to get away with similar foolishness, but there are way too many streaming services these days for anyone to bother reading Ulysses unless they have paid good money for the right to take an essay test on it that determines how they spend their summer. I’m not saying it couldn’t be published today, but it would certainly help if they could put J.J. Abrams’s name on it.

Which is where things like #OwnVoices does a good service: It highlights books not written by white men born of avant-garde filmmakers who turn their book tours into opening acts for Depeche Mode.

I, however, don’t have a voice. I don’t have a story only I could tell. I’m a generally-rule following (to the point of annoying people with me) generic white lady. I am the vegan equivalent of off-brand mayonnaise packets in a wannabe 7–11 on the outskirts of a proper interstate exit.

Does this mean I have no right to write anything? Or am I allowed to write about other women as long as they are also boring?

To be clear, I have never desired to craft a story of someone else’s experience. I’ve never wanted to use words to inhabit the stories of immigrants or to showcase the experience of BIPOC because I am not a member of those groups. I wouldn’t be able to do the story justice and I’d rather read those works from people who could write them well. On the other hand, the long line of poor and lower-middle class white jackasses I do come from doesn’t seem like something the world needs another book about.

Can I write about a pair of potheads if I am not a smoker or a toker, but I’ve known dozens of them? Am I allowed to write about slackers if I’ve been accused of being one? In my first book, I wrote about a woman whose loyalty and need for distance to stay sane are in conflict.

I’m supposed to be writing about her now. I’m supposed to be finishing her second adventure. But she’s become a woman with a lot of demons she’s not managing well and I don’t feel crazy enough to write her well.

Depression gets romanticized sometimes as this necessary thing to be a “real artist,” but art requires practice and diligence and commitment, things that depression makes hard. It’s like trying to accomplish good work while trapped in the swirling abyss of a sewer whirlpool. On the other hand, if your Prozac works too well for too long, you start to forget how melodramatic and unstable the world feels without it.

Or maybe that’s just me. It’s taken a long time to find “right pills [to take] every day.” And it feels weird to admit that because for all the Michael Phelps ads for mental health, it’s still considered taboo outside certain corners of the internet to admit to things like ADHD or depression. Employers assume you won’t be productive enough or fear you’ll turn into one of the mass shooters the media assigns unspecified “mental health” issues to so they don’t have to admit that men, usually white men, have been socialized to think they are allowed to throw violent, murderous temper tantrums if things don’t go their way.

Women in media experiencing very bad days usually end up ignoring the pile of laundry or eating a pint of ice cream. If they do end up on a rampage, they’re almost always on some kind of Bonnie and Clyde trip with a quasi-charismatic man they want to please.

I’m not saying I want to write about a woman turning to stock angry-man behavior either. But maybe I do know about being “messy” on the inside and trying to hold it all together on the outside.

Now, I just need to figure out how to write it.