Fake It Until You Make It

IMG_4323I am not one of those writers who writes only what I know. I do not chalk up my research to life experience. I do not believe that method writing makes one story more genuine than another. Nor do I believe that every fiction author is secretly penning their own memoir. Though I often write to wrench the weight off of my chest, it is not my sole reason for doing it.

I write about what I am passionate about, but I don’t always have a manifesto in my back pocket. I have something to say, but I don’t always smuggle my closing arguments into a narrative. Sometimes my subtext is just a plot thread that’s been left there to dangle.

My imagination can take me far away from my obligations, but I don’t always write to escape.

Sometimes I write just to see what will happen. To tinker for the sake of tinkering. To experiment and see if the results surprise me. To feel like I’m outside of myself, just because it feels funky.

I believe that life experience can make a story feel authentic. It helps describe the lay of the land. It gives you a quote for specific scenarios. It puts ready made thoughts into your characters’ heads.

That said, I do not believe you have to live through something to write about. You may have to research it. You may have to interview others who have, but if you dwell on it enough to bring tears to your eyes, you can write about it. Just respect your readers enough to handle difficult subjects with care and nuance.

Back in college, an older classmate berated a younger one for writing about a something he hadn’t been through. That something was alcoholism. The fledgling writer had taken several symbols we associate with alcoholism and tossed them into his story. He had whiskey plates, a counter full of bottles, then he threw in a shit-stained bed for good measure. The boy’s characters were caricatures. They were based on drunkards he’d seen on TV. One character chugged from a paper bag right before he took the wheel.

The older classmate had a chip on his shoulder, and a few under his belt. He was rightfully offended by the black and white portrayal. He told the kid that the subject ought to be off limits to him.

I disagreed. I thought the young writer ought to dig a little deeper. He could transpose his own experience to fit the story. He could fill in the gaps with someone else’s account. If the older writer really wanted to improve the kid’s story, he should have imparted his wisdom.

The following piece boils down the heart of their argument into something that rhymes.

Fake It Until You Make It

How can you speak from your gut
When your gut’s full of shit?
You’re too young son
You haven’t lived through it
How can you write us a map
When you don’t know the terrain?
You’re too young son
Don’t know your aches from your pain
Your taste buds
Haven’t been refined
Your eardrums
Are wet behind
Your thin skin
Has no scars, no lines
Your heavy heart
Ain’t as heavy as mine

You’ve got to fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Make it legit

How can you open your mouth
When you’ve got nothing to say?
You’re too old pops
This ain’t back in your day
How can you know how it feels
When you just know how it felt?
You’re too old pops
Your hand has been dealt
Your taste buds
Bitter and resigned
Your eardrums
Are misaligned
Your thick skin
All scars and lines
Your heavy heart
Has lost its shine

You’ve got to fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Make it legit

How can you give us a lecture
When you ought to take notes?
You’re too young son
You’ve got nothing to quote
How can you hit it on the head
When you can’t pin it down?
You’re too young son
What block have you been around?
Your taste buds
Don’t know bitter from sweet
Your eardrums
Don’t know the tune for the beat
Your thin skin
Don’t know a word from a bullet
Your heavy heart
Is full of shit

You’ve got to fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Fake ‘til you make it
Make it legit

5 thoughts on “Fake It Until You Make It”

  1. I’ve only written one book and it was about experiences I had.
    My favourite books are written by people who’ve experienced the reality of the fiction they wrote or people who recount their personal experiences.
    That said, I agree with you Drew – you don’t have to have lived through something to write about it but you’d better be ready to get up to the elbows in your subject matter if your going to, .

    I’ve never been in a gunfight, a car chase or a burning building but if I was going to write about these things I’d experience as much of the reality of them as I could before I felt ready to start bashing the words out.

    Good post, thanks for sharing.

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  2. I start with the assumption that I don’t know anything (I think Socrates would agree with me, if Bill and Ted happened to bring him by to drop in on the conversation). Then, if I choose to write anyway, so much the better. No subject is more off limits than the other.

    Although I’ve gotta say, I think Tolkien did screw up a bit in his depiction of hobbits. You can tell his knowledge of the Shire was cursory at best. Still, he probably had better knowledge of hobbits than anyone else of his age. After all, they none of them had advantage of watching Peter Jackson’s cinematic masterpieces when doing their research. What? Am I getting the details wrong?

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  3. I agree that you don’t ALWAYS have to experience something to write about it, but the truth is that far too many – I won’t go so far as to say most, although it wouldn’t surprise me – writers who are not inventing something brand new (e.g. a scifi, fantasy, horror type world), but are instead working to portray something somewhat based on the realities of existing or historical people’s lives don’t do ENOUGH research. Listen, obviously nobody’s going to get it right, and even if you speak from your own experience, that’s not necessarily generalizable to anyone else’s. But, I’m a big believer in either putting in the time and energy to do something as well as possible, as realistically as possible, or choosing to do somehting else instead.

    ~A23

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    1. I agree. You don’t have to go to prison to write a prison story. It might help if you interview former prisoners or guards, but if your ideas is strong enough you might just want to roll with it and fix the procedural aspects on the second draft.

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