Mary Sue or Write What You Know?

Writing classes and the internet forums are full of one very important piece of advice: Write what you know.

It’s good advice, but it’s a little vague. How well should I know something to write it? Is it okay if I’ve just read about it a lot? Should I have lived it? My life is boring, though. Should I even write about things in my own life? Will it just be looked at as a stupid diary entry?

When I was in college, I participated in NaNoWriMo every year. In fact, I wrote all the time. It was a bountiful time for me. There was one moment I can recall that put a pretty bad end to that. I wasn’t able to decide on a project so I decided to use the NaNoWriMo as a scene dump. I made a character who couldn’t stay focused on real life. She was constantly daydreaming and living out fantasies in her head. It was practice and it gave me a good range to work with while I worked on other things.

Well, I was about halfway through the month and actually pretty happy with how it was turning out. I decided to describe my “novel” to a friend. The main character was someone who worked in IT and hated it. She was a humanities kind of person choosing technology for money. She was air headed and had mental health and gender issues. At the time, I was working in IT and hated it. I was an English major choosing technology for job security. I’ve had mental health and gender issues since childhood. I was writing what I knew.

My description must have been awful because she felt she wouldn’t be a good friend if she let me continue blindly writing a “Mary Sue”. It was her responsibility to tell me to stop.

I want to make sure this is clear: my friend did not do me wrong. She had the best of intentions and it sounded like a Mary Sue. I wouldn’t have wanted to write a Mary Sue and she knew that. I probably did a really poor job of describing it. I could have summarized it without adding in the fact about her job choices, since those were just background anyway. In her place, I would have said the same damn thing.

If I’d been giving myself perfect good looks and a hot boyfriend and infinite money and magic powers in this novel, I could understand someone telling me to stop that shit. If I had been writing a Mary Sue, she would have been awesome for making me realize it. But I wasn’t doing that. I was making myself vulnerable for the reader and I was writing what I knew. I was writing mental illness and fear and insecurity.

Her intervention shook me more than anyone’s criticism should. It stopped me from writing that book.

And it stopped me from writing the next and the next. I got more nervous when trying to explain what I was writing to people who genuinely asked and I clammed up to anyone but my mom. My mom is one of those moms who tends to slap you in the face with her criticism when you talk to her, so I eventually stopped telling her too.

But I wasn’t just silently writing. That would have been okay. In fact, that intervention stopped me from writing anything for three years. I would open a blank page and whip myself into a frothy panic. When I got back to writing, I’d gotten rusty. I’d finished a short story and I tried to edit it but it was choppy and boring and poorly written. I’d lost a good deal of progress in my writing style and skill because I couldn’t write anything.

Because I worried that everything I wrote was either insanely ignorant and misinformed or boring and a complete self insert.

You’re told to write what you know. You’re told that no one can write your story like you can. You’re told that writing someone else’s story is appropriative and you can’t write someone else’s story. But if you write what you know too well, you’re writing a self insert. You’re “blowing your load” on the page. You’re egotistical and self centered and bland.

There’s so many conflicting pieces of advice and everyone follows different variations of them. It’s hard to know if these grand writing rules are being broken just by hearing a summary.

I wish I’d had the confidence in myself and my work to push back on her intervention. I had confidence in my skill, then. I could have been good. Now, I’m self conscious about my writing skill. Every time I write, it’s in the back of my mind. Is this character me? Well, yeah. No one else could write this. But is this character too me? Scrap it, then. No one wants to read about me.

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