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Write what you know or don't?

I must have heard the old adage “write what you know” a thousand times but I never thought about it until recently. It is probably a great piece of advice to extremely adventurous individuals whose lives are constantly full of drama. But for those of us whose most interesting real life stories stretch to drunken anecdotes or at best short periods of carefully controlled adventure, even a short one-act play would be pushing it. So that’s why I was surprised to find I might have a story worth telling with Fib. Although I guess that is yet to be seen. Fib is a play about my uncle’s life and on starting to write it I began asking myself, could I write about the personal?

I want to share his story accurately, but it still needs to make a good piece of gig theatre. Anecdotes of my grandparents are wonderfully easy and enjoyable for me to write but that doesn’t necessarily make great theatre. The last thing I want is a play that needs to be captioned, “YOU HAD TO BE THERE!”. Even more importantly, being too accurate and personal could be upsetting to our family as I was writing about things that we had, for self-preservation reasons, not discussed openly as a family. So where is the line?

The “write what you know” advice is of course not accepted by all writers. There are those who say the phrase refers only to writing the emotions of a story. Others say you start from a point of truth and then let your mind go. And the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was once quoted as having said it was “the most stupid thing they’d heard”, as it would “encourage people to write a dull autobiography.” That is of course not something we want to create with Fib. We are now re-drafting Fib, preparing it for R&D this summer in Liverpool and the balance of how much truth is too much truth is becoming a difficult thing to find for me. Until yesterday I was leaning towards following Hemingway’s advice of “inventing from what you know”. However, something changed when I spoke to my aunty yesterday. I had never heard about the ups and downs of their life together from her as I was too young when a lot of the events that I am writing about happened. It was fascinating to hear them and it has left me with a wealth of truth to tell. I have a new spring in my writing step as, loaded with all she shared, I am now certain that “a dull autobiography” is the last thing that Fib will become. And if all else fails, I know my far more experienced co-writer Sara will let me know if I begin to wander into that territory.

Written by Bryony Thomas 26/03/2021

Co-Founder of KimBo Theatre

Co-Writer on Fib


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