Write What You Know—And What You Don't
Write What You Know—And What You Don't
By Gary Goldstein
A friend of mine recently posed an unexpected question after reading my debut novel, The Last Birthday Party, an L.A.-set romantic comedy about a writer whose life falls apart the day after he turns 50.
“How did you know so much about divorce?” she asked, referring to my main character, Jeremy, and his sudden split from long-time wife, Cassie. Oh, and, I guess, the fact that I myself have never actually been divorced.
I thought for a moment, surprised and a little stumped. “I wrote what made sense and what I didn’t know I just… Googled,” I finally answered, almost apologetically.
“Hmm,” she responded, perhaps more impressed than judgmental. “Interesting.”
It then dawned on me that my parents had been divorced and I’ve witnessed other relatives’ and friends’ marriages crash and burn in real-time. Plus, I’ve seen “Kramer vs. Kramer” so, y’know, there was that.
Okay, but still: how did I know enough about divorce to write about it as effectively as I apparently did? (My friend’s words, not mine.)
I’ve thought about her question a lot ever since, which reminded me of another time I was asked something similar and found myself at a loss for appropriate words. It was after a performance of a play I wrote several years ago called April, May & June, a dramedy about three sisters at a family crossroads. My friend (a different one—I have two) came out of the theatre, grabbed me with teary eyes, and said, “How do you know how to write women so well?”
“Well,” I began, I’ve… known a lot of women, so…” I mean, everyone knows a lot of women, the same way everyone knows a lot of men. Uh, don’t they? I was writing characters, they just happened to be women. (One of the sisters in the play was divorced—but that part went unquestioned!)
The truth is, writers write. Sometimes we write about people and conflicts and situations that are familiar to us. But more often than not, we have to do a little digging—or maybe a lot of digging—to get it right, to make it work, to make it authentic.
In my long career as a screenwriter, playwright and now author, I’ve written about so many things that were beyond my immediate life experience: murder, menopause, robbery, loansharking, fashion design, country music, royalty, and the military, to name but a few. I didn’t have to be a thief, a country singer, or the prince of a small European country to make them come alive on the page. Sure, it took work and research and imagination and, in the end, I was told that I pulled it off (not by any thieves, country stars, or princes, but still.)
So what’s the deal—and the ideal? Should we stick to writing what we know, or are at least perceived to know? And if not, how far out of our writerly comfort zones should we consider exploring? Where does the concept begin and where does it end?
The Civil War classic The Red Badge of Courage was written by a 23-year-old Stephen Crane who had never set foot on a battlefield and was born well after the end of the War Between the States.
Jules Verne traveled zero leagues under the sea, never journeyed anywhere near to the center of the earth, nor went around the world in 80—or any—days (in truth, he never left his native France). Yet he wrote some of the world’s most famous and enduring science-fiction adventures. Operative word: fiction.
On the other hand, the late, great Pat Conroy wrote what he knew the best, memorably mining various chapters from his southern upbringing and later life in such acclaimed novels as The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Prince of Tides.
Playwright Neil Simon built virtually his entire storied career repurposing the many phases of his past in hit comedies such as Barefoot in the Park, Chapter Two, and Brighton Beach Memoirs.
On the third hand (who knew?), writers can—and do—also have it both ways. That is, write what you know and what you don’t know. In his wonderful 2019 novel The Editor, Steven Rowley spun a what-if tale involving Jacqueline Onassis’s time in publishing. Though he’d never had any interaction with the famed former First Lady, he told his story through the eyes of someone he knew well: a first-time author whose autobiographical novel (not unlike Rowley’s debut tome Lily and the Octopus) gained more attention than he could have possibly imagined.
You get the point. If not, read on. (Read on anyway, okay?)
My general advice about writing, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or, well, a blog post, is to find something that interests and excites you and gets you to sit your butt down in front of your computer. Make it something only you would write—in only the way that you would write it. And that hopefully others will want to read or watch.
That said, as a writer, it’s also important to stay true to who you are—and who you are not. (Side note: This applies to all aspects of your life. You heard it here.)
Yes, we’re creators, storytellers, fabricators extraordinaire, and hopefully, empaths, but we’re not body snatchers—or soul snatchers for that matter. Our works may be filled with characters and elements from both in and out of our lives. But when it comes to telling someone else’s story, trying to re-create or repurpose another’s lived-in experience or socio-cultural identity as the focus of your writing, well, maybe think that one through first.
It’s probably fair to say we should be able to write whatever we want, explore whatever or whoever’s point of view we wish, attempt to reach the broadest audience we can. But it’s also crucial to ask: What will I write the best? What will I write most credibly—truthfully and emotionally? Is every story fair game to tell?
If your answer to the last question is yes, then go for it. See where it takes you. But just know that the bar is a whole lot higher so you’d better write the shit out of it, make it airtight. It had better feel authentic in all the best and most critical ways. Or leave it to the experts.
Which brings me back to my own novel, The Last Birthday Party (of course, it does). The most frequently asked question I received from interviewers on the book’s promotional trail was: “Are you Jeremy? Are you your main character?”
My answer was usually “Yes. And no.” How’s that for commitment?
I like to think there’s always a small part of us, at least emotionally, in our main character—whoever they are, however far afield their life experience may be from ours. That’s probably inevitable.
The bottom line is: you don’t have to be divorced to write about divorce. But anytime you’re putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), choose wisely. You’re not just writing for yourself.
Gary Goldstein writes for film, TV and the stage, and is now also an author. He has written more than 15 produced TV movies plus the feature films If You Only Knew, Politics of Love and Mr. 365. Gary has also sold or optioned many original screenplays and has sold half-hour pilots to both NBC and Warner Bros TV.
He was most recently represented on the Los Angeles stage with his acclaimed three-sisters dramedy April, May & June, produced by Theatre 40, Beverly Hills. Other L.A. stage credits include the comedies Just Men, Parental Discretion and Three Grooms and a Bride.
Gary is also a contributing film reviewer and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. His first novel, the romantic comedy The Last Birthday Party, was published August 2021 by Hadleigh House. His second novel, the family drama The Mother I Never Had, will be published October 2022.
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @GaryGoldsteinLA
There’s nothing fabulous about 50 for L.A. film critic Jeremy Lerner, who loses his marriage, his job, and the use of his right arm just days after the birthday party he begged his now ex-wife not to throw him. But fate is a sly devil.
Jeremy’s string of calamities leads to a game-changing emotional and creative rebirth after he meets the intoxicating Annabelle, a beguiling widow who comes to his rescue—and Jeremy to hers. If only their baggage didn’t match quite so well.
With the added support of his wise and spirited mom, Joyce, his capricious and big-hearted son, Matty, and Matty’s steadfast new boyfriend, Gabe, Jeremy begins to change in ways that surprise, inspire, and galvanize him. All of this while his career makes a head-spinning leap. The thing is, can it last?
The Last Birthday Party combines wry observation with an everyday wistfulness for a warm, propulsive, humanly funny tale of second chances set against the alluring nuttiness of Hollywood.