The adage “write what you know” has been sitting in my brainpan for a long time. So long that I took it to heart, and I’m writing a book which, at its core, is about the AIDS crisis. I’m not going to talk about the novel in detail mostly because I hope that you’ll get to read it someday, and I don’t want to post spoilers for my own writing.
But I do want to tell you about what its stirred up.
My dad died from AIDS in 1993.
My hearing loss was diagnosed in either 1994, or 1995. Not sure which, I could dig up the records, but the chronology that’s important is that my dad didn’t know I was deaf. And it’s the things we don’t know before we die, but are figured out later by the living which can hurt us the most.
My dad was a painter, a writer, a performer – he was an artist. My childhood memories don’t have many images before the age of eight that don’t in some way show charcoals, or oil paints, or sketching beside my dad. His artwork is in my house, and I need to find a way to use it.
But his writings are a legacy that was left to me in boxes, to be opened after I was 18. I’m almost 30 now and I’ve only read through some of it. Much of it is too private and intimate, and I don’t choose to read it. But some of it is there for me.
Some of it is about me.
There’s a poem he wrote, one about how he and I were the only ones to remember our memories, so after he’s gone, I’ll be the only one left – so my memories are correct. No one can take that away. But one thing he says in that poem breaks my heart every time I see it. That “sometimes I’d yell because you’d pretend you couldn’t hear me, and I’d be a bad dad alright.”
My hearing diagnosis came after, but my memories of my dad are changed now, they are sadder because his frustration wasn’t because I willfully didn’t want to hear him, but because I couldn’t.
My dad wasn’t perfect, and my memories of him aren’t. Writing what I know in this instance means I’m also retracing my steps through a childhood that I can only half remember, and piecing together the words of a man I only sort of knew.
I’m not writing what I know entirely, I’m taking what I know and expanding, and learning from it, twisting it into a story that will shake you, because that’s what I do. But the core of this book, it’s one about learning to lose people – and that’s a thing I’ve done for over twenty-five years. Learning to lose my father, and learning to forgive him for things he never knew.
When you choose to “write what you know” look past the obvious of writing about a dead parent, and towards the themes of what’s really going on.
I choose to write about AIDS in a urban fantasy setting because it seemed like a way to learn form my experiences.
I choose to write about the dead because in giving them life, I can say goodbye.
I choose to write about these things because in the end, no one is perfect, not even the dead.
My novel is about a lot of things, and hopefully you’ll get to explore them, but really, when you write what you know, you’ll learn a lot about yourself – and sometimes discover the things you didn’t know were there.
This book shakes me every time I open the manuscript, and this is why – because even though the book isn’t about him, and I’m not the main character, I can see my childhood peeking out from behind the paragraphs.
We can’t fix our pasts by rewriting them as fiction, but when we write what we know we can tell stories that are meaningful to us.