Peggy Bechko: The Absolute Basic Tenet of Writing

by Peggy Bechko

Write What Now?

As writers, along the away at some time, we’ve all heard the admonition, Write What You Know.

Uh huh, right. Well I’ve always kind of wrestled with that, but now I’ve heard it put another way.

Author Stephen King says, “Write The Truth”. In other words, write about what you’ve experienced; love, rage, sadness, humor, and write it honestly. Put it across as real as you experienced it. He points out that if you get your reader to hear echoes of his or her own life, belief system, experiences, then that reader is more likely to really connect with what you’ve written, be drawn into it, want to read more.

What do you think?

I think he’s right and it applies to pretty much anything you choose to write. We humans like to connect and we do that best when we can relate with feelings and memories of our own to what another is telling us. It applies to novels, screen scripts and even that sales letter you got in the mail. Doesn’t matter what age you are when you’re writing. If you’re old enough to put words up on a screen or down on paper, you’ve already experienced a lot of what life offers, or kicks you in the teeth with.


At age seven I stepped on a board with a nail sticking out and my big brother carried me home to have my mother pull the nail out of my foot and administer first aid (pain and fear and love for big brother)

At age nine my family moved away from Indiana to Florida. Just before we left my dog got killed on the street by a car (grief – I’d never lost something I loved). Moving day (loss, my friends were left behind). Arrival in Florida (joy at being reunited with grandparents I loved; fear and adjustment, new friends, new school).

At age ten parents got us a puppy from the shelter. Love the dog but she got car sick and barfed all over me in the back seat on a trip to see grandparents in nearby town (ewwwwww! – but memorable).

At age nineteen my beloved grandfather died (extreme grief – I’d lost a pet but never a loved one. Nausea – everyone knew about Grandpa’s death about 8 hours before I did as I was at work and they didn’t want to call me home ~ and they were ready to go out to have a subdued dinner as no one had cooked when I was told ~ thought I was going to throw up.)knowwhatyouknow

You get it. Life is throwing things at you from the day you’re born. You have accidents, trouble in school, trouble with parents, loss, funny times, snakes in the back yard, a dog that throws up on you. By the time you’re writing stories you have a treasure trove of ‘real’ stored up inside you. Feelings and experiences. Real feelings and experiences you can spill onto the page to allow you to hook up with your reader who’s had some of those experiences themselves along the line whether it’s an agent, a producer, a publisher or a fan who’s doing the reading.

Don’t think you have to be as magician and create a whole new experience bank when you have all you need inside you. Dig deep. Don’t be shy about spilling all that out onto the page. That’s where real writing comes from, where the great stuff abides. Drag it out and use it.

I think “write the truth” is some of the best advice I’ve heard in quite some time.

“Write What is True”

…which isn’t necessarily the same as “writing the truth.” At ComicMix.Com, John Ostrander, one of our comic book writing idols, is all over this with some very good advice:

John Ostrander: What is True? – by John Ostrander (ComicMix.Com)

One of the primary rules for writing is “Write what you know.” As I’ve discussed before, the corollary question becomes “what do you know?” I can write characters that, on the surface, are totally unlike me because underlying there are elements that true for both of us. Granted, I need to get the details of those lives correct but the essentials – the feelings, the doubts, everything that makes us human – are the same. I just have to find out where that is in me and what it looks like.

So, for me, the more important rule is “Write what is true.” That will vary from person to person, from character to character. The corollary question then becomes “What is true?” I’m not asking “What is The Truth?” because I don’t think that The Great Objective Truth exists or, if it does, it can be perceived as such by each of us through the lenses of our own existence. What I’m asking is “What is true?” for each person, be they a living and breathing reality or a fictional creation.

Socrates famously said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add: “The unquestioned belief is not worth having.” As kids, we’re all given a set of beliefs, be they about God, country, family, love, values and so on. That’s fine; we all have to start off somewhere. Parents have their beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad and it is both their job and their duty to instill those in their children. As the children grow and come to adulthood, it is their job to examine those beliefs and see if they are true for them. Do you believe something because your own experience, your own questioning, has brought you to that place or are you there because someone told you that is true and it’s what you must believe?

That’s my problem with dogma. It tells me that this is the truth and this is what I must believe whether my own experiences agree with it. It may be that my own experiences and my own questioning will bring me to the same place, the same conclusion or belief and that’s fine. I will have then earned that belief; it’s not a hand-me-down. It’s mine.

Dogma, whether religious, political, social or what have you, is easier. Questioning takes time, takes effort and may take you to places that you’re not comfortable to visit. It can shift your foundations. My questions about the existence of God made me feel like I was on a trapeze in the dark. I had just let go of one bar but I couldn’t see if there was another trapeze swinging towards me or if there was a net below. It’s still that way. I’m on a boat in the ocean but I don’t know which port is the destination or how long it will take to get there. The voyage, however, is necessary.

Where I wind up may not be your truth, and that’s fine. I accept that what is true for you is your truth and valid. It just may not be mine. Our truths could be opposite and we both may feel compelled to act on our truths and that may bring us into conflict. That’s also fine. I can oppose you and respect your truth without accepting it for my truth.

As for us, so with the characters we write. The best stories challenge the characters on a deep level, on what they regard as true. The situation challenges or shatters the character’s beliefs. They must find out what is true. If you as the writer have never done that yourself, how can you write it? First you must live it and understand the process and then it becomes useful to you as writer. Aside from talent, aside from skill, all you have to offer as a writer is who you are as a person and your own strengths and weaknesses as that person will become your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.