First of all, to clarify: I am adamantly against “writing what you know”. How boring would that be? Science fiction would be nowhere by adhering to such an adage. Exploratory texts are how new and important stories are formed. I absolutely advocate going places you’ve never been for the sake of literature and mental expansion.
Except that… when the stakes are down, it’s pretty damn easy to tell when someone hasn’t actually been through whatever they’re writing about.
Not because it feels false, or the prose is badly constructed, or even that the sentiment is missing. These could all be present and perfect. They often are.
It’s easy to tell because there is always a ready explanation for a character’s abnormal condition.
There’s a reason this person has intimacy issues, a reason that a parent won’t marry again, a reason this pet is skittish and afraid. She was raped; he was burned; it was repeatedly abused. Linear narrative logic. Ta-daaa, it says. Trace it back to the beginning.
What about when the arbitrary matter of existence throws something on you that has no precedent or prerequisite or “because”? When your brain decides, of its own accord, that it would rather not? When a person is the way they are—not because of a turning point or major revelation, but because that’s just the way it fucking is?
People are born with depression that has nothing to do with trauma. Children are raised with reservations in complete opposition with the love they are given. Personally, I have issues with touch—not to mention being the subject of intimacy—that are not the result of rape, abuse, or psychological distress. My parents are geniuses who attended to me with care and freedom. My childhood was full of animals, board games, dress-up, and mud days. I could not have more respect or admiration for my sister. My family’s brain game could outclass MENSA with pride.
So why did I have to pay for years of cognitive therapy? Why did my younger sister jump off a building at age 19? Why did my mother’s sister (my aunt) suffer hallucinations in silence for so many years? Where did my loathing of being loved come from?
Sometimes I wish we could be inside a story, where all of this would make perfect sense. Where I could flip back to a beginning chapter and say, See. There it is. That’s the moment things changed. Cue symbolism.
Life is hardly ever so natural.
It’s no wonder I prefer to exist inside fiction. If religion is how individuals make sense of existence, then stories are my only faith.