When I was a very young wannabe author, I often ran across this piece of advice: Write about what you know. I took this to mean that I should either write ultra-realistically, or go out and have a lot of experiences. These approaches have their merits (consider realists like Henry James or crazy adventure types like Jack Kerouac), but this advice can cause us to miss the forest for the trees.
Sometimes the stories with the least outward realism strike deeply into our hearts. Charles Dickens' characters are bonkers, and his novels are thrill-rides of crazy events. We can’t imagine these stories actually happening. Yet we find ourselves truly loving Dickens’ characters, and their experiences resonate within us.
Similarly, authors with extremely narrow experience have written insightful stories with broad appeal. (Jane Austen, anyone?) Dorothy Sayers was an academic and ad writer now best known for her sophisticated amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey—a blatantly imaginary character, but just try reading the mystery series without falling in love with him.
Compare this with the experience we’ve all had of picking up a book that fails to hold our attention even though it's obviously well written, with lots of sensory detail and characters doing logical things. What is missing from such a book? What is it that great authors have in common?
The best authors are connected to an inner world that is not just cerebral and imaginative—it is a place rich with feeling. These writers are aware of their emotions, feel them honestly, and transmit that reality into their stories. Sometimes that reality is expressed in fantastic dream sequences, as in Alice in Wonderland. Other times emotional truth is expressed in a humdrum tale. What we recognize when we read these stories is not necessarily their outer garments, but the hearts within.
One of my author obsessions, Charlotte Bronte, combined a Gothic lack of realism with a personal experience that was not only narrow, but frankly depressing. Yet she remains one of the greatest of English writers. This is because she was able to cut across boundaries of class, gender, and language with her perception of what and how human beings feel—starting with herself.
Great authors feel their feelings. Exactly—just what your therapist told you to do! If I could go back and talk to my teenage self, I’d say this: Know your feelings, and write about them.