Returning to the Common Advice series with what is probably the most commonly known. In fact its so common, that no one even bothers to say it much these days. Its been thrown out so often, we seem to have thrown it out permanently. And it would seem most writers are very glad.
Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Old Rourke (was he old?) wasn’t alone.
If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don’t know.
Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.
It’s a piece of advice that seems to be quoted only so that people can assure you not to follow it, which makes an interesting change. And taken on the surface, like most advice, it seems like nonsense. The easiest rebuff is science fiction or fantasy or every romance book ever (cause no one ever knew that guy, who treated them that way..)
Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful
~Philip K. Dick
To return to story and the hard science that makes my love of it seem oh so much more worthy :), if we write to figure out what if? saying we must only write what we know would undermine its most basic purpose – to understand what we can’t. If we limit ourselves to only what we know, well, we limit ourselves full stop. Shakespeare didn’t even hold himself to any known language. If poets, and by extension writers, are to be the unacknowledged (or acknowledged) legislators of the world or even one tiny jigsaw piece of it, then we must push beyond the known. Its not so much our duty as our passion. We write what burns up our brains, we write because we must know.
Which might naturally lead you to want to tweak it slightly and re-render it, ‘write what you love’. If you did you’d be in agreement with what most writers, the great, the good and the obscure, think.
There is more pleasure to building castles in the air than on the ground
It’s better to write about things you feel than about things you know about
~L. P. Hartley
But there is an sneaky contradiction in there. Can you love what you do not know? If we write what we love, are we not by definition writing what we know? Writing with love is not the same as writing of that which we love. Accepting that passion must drive us, or we’d be rather silly to attempt a time consuming hobby which rarely leads to any success, monetary or otherwise, does that really speak to what you are writing about?
I have a friend who is passionate about zombies. Do not fear, they exist only in literature. Which means he is passionate about literature. If he writes what he loves, he is writing what has already been written. Even if he does a Max Brooks, and is credited with bringing something fresh to the genre, he’s still not only drawing from what he knows but what he knows is drawn from the limits of someone else’s imagination. Not getting philosophical on you. There is a real danger here. Passion is a great thing, we rely on it, not just in ourselves but in our readers. And didn’t we all start out as readers, inspired to recreate? There is a great deal of fiction out there which for all intents and purposes is just a tribute to a book. And that book might well be a tribute to another book. Art eating itself from the inside out. Someone said that to me recently – if I recall who I will credit them. Its a good phrase. Each book, each copy is poorer than the last, each delivering ever decreasing impact in passion, in influence, in money. Eventually there will be nothing left to copy.
It exists. It makes money. Some of it might even survive the test of time. But if you are looking for me to advise you do it, I’d suggest you make a bet on pigs flying.
It could be argued that much of many genres must by definition be drawn from within their own history, that even when it tries, it very absence of reference is a reference in itself. Can you explore space and not have your reader think of Star Trek? Can you write fantasy and avoid LotR? And if you do, as George R.R Martin has found, will you forever be known as the anti-LotR fantasy? Take it further and much of society could be said to be as made-up as fiction. Law – bunch of rules we made up. Politics – bunch of theories we made up. Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with being inspired by art, by your favourite book. These are great places to begin, but if we don’t move beyond, nothing new, be it so simple as a word, is ever created. There are those who work from within a closed circle, sup from a cup which is filled with nothing more than the saliva from those who already supped…:( and I can’t help but wonder if it because they were told ‘write what you love’. And clearly given the plethora of copies of copies around, it, unfortunately, was advice they were all too happy to cling to.
I would be tempted to say write what you love, write what you are terrified of, and curious about, and bewildered by, and amused with and that you find wondrous… pretty much everything you feel 🙂
The historian records, but the novelist creates
E. M. Forster
Setting limits would seem the antithesis of creation, especially when those limits are drawn by what already exists.
So, ignore ‘write what you know’ and write, just write? well…
Okay, I am given to being a little perverse and given my general belief that all writing advice, the good, the bad and the bizarre is only of use when examined in detail and not swallowed in an easily digestible truism, I’m sorely tempted to advise it purely to see people try and figure it out. The one thing that all good writing does is dig. Worrying down under the skin of a thing until you find the blood, until you’re polishing the bone of it. As writers isn’t that a very good muscle to exercise? Regardless of the answer we eventually come to.
But, more than that, there is something about this advice that I have never been able to entirely dismiss. Something about it tugs at the corner of my mind, refusing to let me ignore it. With my first book I was very concerned with research, aware that I was writing in an area where I was completely out of my depth. My main character was a police detective and I’m not. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never testified. Never dated a policeman. Yet at the same time its not like I was writing about some obscure profession where only one in a million could correct me, or care to correct me, if I got things wrong. I became obsessed with authenticity; researching rank, procedure, terminology. It became so I couldn’t write a sentence, frozen by the thought, is this right?
Which you might naturally think means I needed to stop worrying about writing what I knew and just write. But the exact opposite was the truth.
What I know is people. I’m fascinated, (horrified, terrified, bewildered..) by human nature. Who we are, why we do what we do, how we deal with all the little functions of life, how we interact in close knit settings such as work environments. What I needed to do was remember that. To take what I knew and apply it to this strange new world. To use what I know to figure out what I didn’t..
What we know is much more fundamental than a series of superficial facts gleaned from a textbook and testified to in a qualification. All our experiences and observations have formed a base knowledge which allows us to get through the day, when we have no idea what the day might bring. We call it intuition, instinct, its too visceral to be broken down and every one of us has amassed our own peculiar unteachable understanding. You might even argue we write to share this knowledge with the world. We write what we know, not because we must, not because we should, but because you really can’t write anything else.
And maybe all you know is other books. But I suspect no one lives in that bubble. So maybe the better advice would be to ask yourself, what is it you know that is worth writing? We’re not right, anymore than we’re wrong. There is no right, we’re just shuffling, bumbling through, with nothing but this inner knowing to guide us; its that or follow the herd. Try it this way, Write what you know, not what the world tells you.