A common bit of writing advice that you will find if you read books on writing or attend a writer’s conference is this:
Write what you know.
I’m not refuting that bit of advice in this post, but I do want to offer a little twist on the main idea.
First of all, let’s discuss what writing what you know means and why this is recommended for writers, especially beginning writers.
What does it mean to write what you know?
Not every one of us is terrific at world building.
And for those for whom it seems to come naturally, it took a lot of practice before they began writing entire other worlds into existence.
Take, for instance, the well-known 100 Cupboards series in which a character finds himself entering another world.
The author N.D. Wilson seamlessly writes this. He is a pro at world building, but he did not start his writing career writing other worlds.
His first novel, Leepike Ridge, was set in our world.
Or consider the terrific trilogy of middle-grade books by Tim Shoemaker, the Code of Silence series, which was set in a certain city …
Which so happens to be the city in which Tim Shoemaker lives.
In fact, Tim Shoemaker was the one from whom I first learned the advice to “write what you know” while I attended several of his workshops during a writer’s conference.
Why write what you know?
It makes it easier for a writer to create realistic settings if they are familiar with a place or a setting.
Then they can devote more of their imagination to the storyline and characters rather than needing to invent entire worlds.
Now, what does it mean to rewrite what you know?
Let’s look at this through the writing of C. S. Lewis.
Even if you’re not an avid reader, you have undoubtedly encountered The Chronicles of Narnia at some point in your literary journey.
There’s an interesting theme that gets revisited in not one of the books but several of them:
And, interestingly, they were something with which C. S. Lewis’ was intimately familiar in his own early life.
In writing about them, he wrote what he knew …
but with a twist.
Lewi’s treatment of boarding schools in the Chronicles of Narnia
In the first Narnian book that C. S. Lewis wrote, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four Pevensie children travel to the countryside to escape the London air raids during World War II.
Edmund, the second youngest, undergoes quite the character arc in the story.
And if you’ve read it, you know his betrayal is the reason for Aslan’s necessary sacrifice.
Near the end, Edmund’s battle wounds are healed by a magic cordial that had been gifted to his younger sister, Lucy. And the result is seen from Lucy’s perspective:
She found him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds, but looking better than she had seen him look–oh, far ages; in fact, ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face.C. S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
This is pretty much the only mention of the boarding school Edmund had attended, and C. S. Lewis doesn’t dwell on it at length.
In fact, it’s something you could almost miss, and I didn’t really grasp it after several readings.
But in looking at the Chronicles of Narnia as a whole, you see how boarding schools come up again and again.
In Prince Caspian, the second book that C. S. Lewis wrote in the series, the four Pevensie children are heading to boarding school, the three older ones returning to school and Lucy going for the first time.
They are at a train station from which they will soon be parting–Susan and Lucy to a girls’ boarding school and Peter and Edmund to one for boys–and the overall feeling is one of … if not complete dread, at least nervousness and hesitation.
“Gloom” is the word Lewis uses to describe their feelings upon the boarding school term beginning once more.
By contrast, in several places throughout the books, Lewis refers to the exciting feeling of the school terms over and the holidays beginning.
So, why this negative view of boarding schools in Lewis’ fictional series?
It has to do with his own experiences in boarding schools during his boyhood.
C. S. Lewis’ Personal Experiences with Boarding Schools
I first read C. S. Lewis’ memoir, Surprised by Joy, in my late twenties.
The subtitle of the book is “The Shape of My Early Life” and it entails Lewis’ “search for joy, a spiritual journey that led him from the Christianity of his early youth into atheism and then back to Christianity.”
It’s a fascinating book written by a fascinating and talented individual, and if you’ve never read it, you really should.
But a huge part of his early experiences involved boarding house schooling.
He contrasts fleeting glimpses of what he sometimes calls joy (and sometimes longing, northernness, and Sehnsucht) against the gloom of his experiences at boarding school.
C. S. Lewis’ first boarding school experiences were at a small school run by a man he referred to as “Oldie,” where he learned almost nothing and was perpetually in fear of flogging.
Oldie was a man who ate at a different table than his wife and daughters; he and his son ate better fare. Neighbors thought the man crazy, and he was eventually declared insane, at which time the school closed, otherwise, in Lewis’ words:
Intellectually, the time I spent at Oldie’s was almost entirely wasted; it the school had not died, and if I had been left there two years more, it would probably have sealed my fate as a scholar for good.”Surprised by Joy, p. 34
Lewis’ continued at boarding schools for several years, describing in detail the horrors of school aristocracy and the mistreatment of younger boys by older ones with more clout and power.
As one of the younger students, he was often sent on errands by older boys, and described himself as “dog tired, cab-horse tired, tired (almost) like a child in a factory” during those school terms.
Never, except in the front-line trenches (and not always there) do I remember such aching and continuous weariness as at [boarding school]. Oh, the implacable day, the horror of waking, the endless desert of hours that separated one from bedtime!Surprised by Joy, p. 96
In short, boarding schools were not his thing.
He also didn’t take part in sports, due to a physical defect, and couldn’t enjoy them, but had to pretend to enjoy them so as not to seem “eccentric” and be “severely penalized.”
Then, the opportunity came for Lewis to be educated by a tutor. His father was, for a time, concerned that the young Lewis would not be able to socialize with boys his age.
Lewis describes it in a humorous manner:
Should I really be happy with no companions of my own age? I tried to look very grave at [my father’s] questions. But it was all imposture.Surprised by Joy, p. 129
My heart laughed.
Happy without other boys? Happy without tooth ache, without chilblains, happy without pebbles in my shoes? And so the arrangement was made.
If it had nothing else to recommend it, the mere thought ‘never, never, never shall I have to play games again,’ was enough to transport me.
If you want to know how I felt, imagine your own feelings on waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited love had somehow vanished from the world.
So, this was C. S. Lewis’ experience with boarding schools.
They were basically, for him, some form of hell on earth. And being able to move beyond them was one of the best things of his young life.
Of course, he writes it in a wonderful and descriptive manner, and I would definitely recommend that you read it in his own words in Surprised by Joy.
But let’s come back around to the idea of rewriting what you know.
C. S. Lewis’ Recasting of Boarding Schools in The Chronicles of Narnia
The Silver Chair is the fourth book that C. S. Lewis wrote of the world of Narnia.
It focuses on the two main characters of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole.
Eustace is the Pevensies’ cousin and he experiences an amazing character arc in the previous book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my personal favorite of the seven Narnian books).
The Silver Chair begins with Eustace trying to comfort Jill because she is being teased by boarding school bullies.
She is surprised that he is being kind to her this school term, because previously he had been one of those bullies …
What she doesn’t know is that he experienced a dragoning and undragoning by the grace of Aslan in Narnia during the summer holidays.
The two of them have a terrific adventure in Narnia, in the form of a quest that goes wrong in a number of ways, and near the end of the book, return to England, and to the bullies who are still after them.
And this is that terrific moment where C. S. Lewis rewrites his boarding school experiences, where he recasts them into something magical and supremely “right.”
[Aslan] led them rapidly through the wood, and before they had gone many paces, the wall of Experiment House [the boarding school] appeared before them. Then Aslan roared so that the sun shook in the sky and 30 feet of the wall fell down before them.The SIlver Chair, p. 241-242
Aslan turned to Jill and Eustace and breathed upon them and touch their foreheads with his tongue. Then he lay down amid the gap he had made in the wall and turned his golden back to England, and his lordly face toward his own lands.
At the same moment, Jill saw figures whom she knew only too well running up through the laurels toward them. Most of the gang were there: Adela Pennyfeather and Cholmondely Major, Edith Winterblott, “Spotty” Sorner, big Banister, and the two loathsome Garrett twins.
But suddenly they stopped. Their faces changed, and all the meanness, conceit, cruelty, and sneakishness almost disappeared in one single expression of terror.
For they saw the wall falling down, and a lion as large as a young elephant lying in the gap, and three figures in glittering clothes with weapons in their hands rushing down upon them. For with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls, and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords on the boys so well that in two minutes all the boys were running like mad crying out, “Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair.” …
And the wall, at Aslan’s word, was made whole again. When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts and the Head (principal) behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing.
And in the inquiry, all sorts of things about Experiment House came out and about 10 people got expelled. … And from that day forth things changed for the better at Experiment House and it became quite a good school. And Jill and Eustace were always friends.
C. S. Lewis couldn’t undo his hard experiences at boarding school.
They were a part of him.
They made him who he was.
But I think Lewis had more than a bit of fun in rewriting what he knew, in recasting it in a humorous light where justice is served on the bullies (and on the people running the boarding school who had allowed the bullying and wrongdoing to continue).
And perhaps that image of Aslan’s golden mane and two children transformed by the grace of Aslan and the air of Narnia became a greater image in his mind than the harsh memories of his early years.
So, what about you?
How Can You Rewrite What You Know?
We’re not always ready to write about hard experiences.
Some things need time … a lot of time.
But maybe it is time, and if so, you’ll probably know it.
You’ll feel that, “Yes, I’m far enough from this experience chronologically and emotionally to be able to write about it.”
How do you rewrite it? Recast it?
Try different things.
- Maybe a poem is what you need.
- Or a fictional rendering.
- Maybe you should transform the characters into animals or sea creatures, or the setting into some other world.
- Maybe you can alter the details and the ending to make it right and true and just.
This doesn’t mean you’re trying to rewrite your own memories or change your experiences.
Your experiences will always be a part of you, and they are what has made you into the person you are today …
But the act of rewriting what you know can be a liberating and cathartic one.
I encourage you to try it …
And I’d love to hear the results if you do.