They say you should write what you know

What you don't see

We all know the old saying about writing what you know. We also all know that many times, what an author writes about is inspired by something they see or hear somewhere – some tidbit on the news, an overheard conversation, the thought that they could have written the book they just read so much better.

Sometimes, though, the thing that inspires you makes it too difficult to write the story. This happened to me very recently.

Several days ago, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I came upon a familiar face. This familiar face was in a mugshot from my local sheriff’s office, a suspect who’d been arrested because he was found with a teenage girl who’d gone missing. They were found on the other side of the country, and he’d already lied to the police by claiming she was not with him.

This man was the husband of a former friend of mine, and father of children that my children were friends with. His wife immediately changed her last name and marital status, according to some other friends, and not many details beyond the fact that he was found with the girl and arrested have come out. But it’s all too easy to imagine the rest of the possible details. So many questions are raised: why was he with her? Why did he lie to the police? Did she go willingly, as initially thought by the letter she left behind, or did he take her? Did his wife know? Did his wife condone what he was doing? What about his children? Did they know? Were they his first victims?

Naturally, with the fertile imagination of a writer, I can come up with all kinds of answers – some good, some bad, depending on which way I go. Of course, all my answers are nothing more than pure speculation – I have no real information.

What I do know is this: this man always made me uncomfortable. From the very first time I met him, I didn’t really like him. I felt he was too controlling over his wife, too easily angered, too willing to hold a grudge. His wife, someone I initially connected with quite strongly, eventually began to make me somewhat uncomfortable as well. For me, the eventual final straw came when my kids didn’t want to play with her kids anymore and when one of my kids began to be very annoyed by my having to question whether he’d said or done things that her kids claimed. I began to distance myself from them, and eventually they faded out of my life completely.

So it was a huge shock to me when I saw that familiar face in my newsfeed that night. But, at the same time, it also inspired me to wake up the next morning and begin a story. It’s not uncommon for me to be inspired by something I’ve seen in the news. I’ve got a whole collection of articles saved that have all prompted ideas that I just haven’t gotten around to writing yet.

Though this story began with a strong start, I soon found myself unable to continue. It wasn’t because I ran out of steam, or found myself unable to figure out how to get out of a jam I’d written. It was because, for as inspired as I was to begin the story, it just hits far too close to home for me right now.

This was a man who, through my connection to his wife and my children’s connection to his children, I’d allowed into my life, and that of my children. To realize what kind of person he may be (remember, innocent until proven guilty), what kind of person I’ve potentially brought into my life and my children’s lives is absolutely terrifying. And when I try to write the story, that terror ends up paralyzing me. I think about the could have beens, the things that might have happened if I’d done something different. If I’d trusted his wife or him to watch my children, even briefly. If, as I was begged so many times to do, I’d allowed my children to spend the night at their home.

I find myself questioning whether he made his children his first victims – or possibly even more horrifying, if they were his victims, but not his first. These are children that I knew. Children that, despite the issues that arose, I cared about. Thinking about what may have happened to them, wondering if there was something I missed and if I could have helped them if I hadn’t missed it, makes me feel much like the main character in the story I wanted to write.

Strong emotion is a good thing when you’re a writer. If you can’t feel an emotion strongly, there’s no way you’re going to make your reader feel it – and if your reader doesn’t feel it, they won’t enjoy the story. But at the same time, while you’re feeling that emotion so strongly, you also need to have some perspective, some distance from it. And right now, I’m just not able to find that distance.

So I’ve had to set the story aside for now. I fully believe that I will come back and write it one day. Maybe to help me work through what I feel about what happened, maybe just because I think it could be a great story. But right now, I can’t do it. I want to, but it’s just not the right time right now. I need to wait until I can find the perspective, so that I can feel the emotions I want to make my readers feel without letting them completely overwhelm and drown me.

Share with me. Have you, as a writer, found a subject that you couldn’t write about, either temporarily or permanently? If you’re a reader, have there been any books you couldn’t read because the subject matter was too much for you to handle?

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