Earlier this year, I was asked to adjudicate a junior short fiction contest. Young writers ages 12 -20 submitted their stories and essays and I was given the monumental task of picking winners. When I told a couple of teacher friends that I was doing this they told me to expect cutting. Cutting is important, my teacher friends said. Teenagers always write about characters who cut themselves.
I didn't read any self harm stories but there were some common themes: New York City, spies, zombies, violent crime, and the tragic deaths of healthy young people. The body count was high! Everything about these pieces felt familiar. Maybe a little too familiar. I was a teenage writer once, pouring all my imagination and purple prose into page after page on WordPerfect. My stories were invariably about teenagers on an island, being picked off by a serial killer (spoiler: the killer was one of the teenagers!). I knew nothing about deserted islands or serial killers just as I suspect most of these young writers know little of spies and violent crime. What I wanted to say to all of them was: never mind all this; write what you know!
Because here's the thing: there was a lot of talent in these pieces. Evocative scene setting, beautiful turns of phrase, and endings that surprised and thrilled me. But a lot of it was overshadowed by the emphasis on high-stakes plot. Occasionally, a glimmer of some real truth, some messy uncomfortable human emotion, shone through and that's when I got interested.
The problem - I think - is we are told to write what we know. And we think: what I know is boring; no one is going to read that. My advice is more specific: focus on the real feelings and emotions of which you have intimate knowledge. Interrogate those areas of your life which are most painful, most awkward, most cringe-inducing. And then write about those things.
Write about being bullied. Write about feeling inadequate. Write about being abandoned by your friends in the cafeteria. Write about failure. Write about loneliness. And then if you want to set the story in New York City, by all means. Or make your characters werewolves. Have them join MI5. Send them to Saturn. If your writing is driven by real emotions and feelings, if writing makes me you feel unsettled and deeply uncomfortable, then the setting and characters and plot will matter very little. Because the things you invent will be secondary to the emotions that you know.
I'd like to go back in time and give this advice to myself: You'll never be this age again! And when you're older you won't have access to the intense, complex emotions you have now. Write this stuff down!
It's low stakes (emotionally) to construct a high-stakes plot that is removed from the reality of one's own life. But when you make yourself vulnerable, when the act of writing feels high-stakes to the writer... that's when the story gets real, gets interesting.