Writers have been told forever to “write what you know.” But what does that mean? I did a little research and found a short but provocative blog by Jason Gots entitled: Write what you know—the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. His conclusion, after interviewing Nathan Englander, the critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: “‘Write what you know’ isn’t about events. It’s about emotions.”
Ah! That opens up things a bit, doesn’t it? I may not be a teenager in love, but I was once. And I most definitely remember that feeling. I’ve also felt fear, anger, jealousy, joy, pride, loss—pretty much the whole range of emotions. So, if I can draw on those memories, I should be able to write on just about any topic, right?
That theory was sorely tested when I began writing my middle grade novel, Different. It’s a story about a twelve-year-old girl dealing with the daily challenges of living with Tourette Syndrome, (TS) a poorly understood neurological disorder. I don’t have TS, or Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or any of the other conditions associated with TS, but my granddaughter does. Could I credibly write her story?
I struggled with that challenge for over a decade. How could I put down in story form what I watched my lovely, beautiful, bright granddaughter go through on a daily basis? I needed space and time to get a handle on the powerful emotions that her struggles produced in not only her, but her family as well. I was blessed to be a part of that struggle, called in during times of crisis to help calm the anger, stress, pain that permeated the household. Bring the child home to our house, a quiet refuge in a sea of emotion. Give the parents some space to tamp down their own stress.
No, I don’t suffer the vagaries of TS, but I understand the powerful emotions surrounding its manifestations. And I so wanted to share what I learned, observed, and absorbed over the years. Finally, after enough time had passed that I could view it all in a more objective state-of-mind, I started to write Different.
It took the better part of two years to write this small novel. It was a distressing but cathartic experience. My protagonist’s story isn’t my grandchild’s story. But her tics, emotional struggles, sometimes painful relationships are. Do I capture what goes on in her head? I think so, but then again, my granddaughter is a very private child. She hasn’t read the book. Not sure she ever will. So, I can’t say yes, this is what she felt. But it is what I felt when I watched her struggle. Her emotions were so powerful they infiltrated my own.
So, I “wrote what I know.” I wrote about the emotions that I saw and felt swirling around this incredible child and her family. I can only hope I captured it honestly and effectively. And I also hope that it can act as a catharsis for others in the TS community. And a tool to give to teachers, family, and friends to help them understand that TS is a disorder, not a disease. People afflicted with TS wear their differences where they can be seen. Most of us have the blessing of hiding them and bringing them out only if we want to. But in the end, we’re all different, aren’t we?
If you would like to share your experience with Tourette syndrome or invite me to speak with your organization or classroom, I would love to hear from you. Contact me at https://janetmclaughlin-