14 May 2009

Writerly Advice #3: Write What You Know

Raise your hand if you've ever heard this piece of advice.

Raise your hand if you've ever been bludgeoned by this piece of advice.

I have.

I write fantasy, right, which pretty much means I don't write about stuff I've experienced. All my worldbuilding, my characters, my magic systems... It's all created out of my head.

But how can you write it if you haven't experienced it? I don't know about you, but I've certainly never been to another world, or disarmed someone by magic (or by non-magical means, come to think about it), or ridden a unicorn, or been a secret assassin.

So how do I write about these things?

I used to resent my creative writing professor at university for saying this about my shorts. I didn't want to write what I knew. If I knew it already, why would I want to write it? Writing is about discovery and invention, after all.

But here's the thing: the teacher was actually right. (shock, horror) He just didn't articulate it in a way that I could understand at the time. There's a challenge implicit in the phrase 'Write what you know", and we'll get to that, but even more simply, my work at the time wasn't what I knew and so it was melodramatic and unreal. I think this also has a bit to do with my 'life stage' at the time; teenagers do tend towards the melodramatic, after all ;)

Anyway, this is what he meant to say:

"It isn't about writing only in the here-and-now, because that's all you've experienced; it isn't about never writing about a married character if you're single, or only writing about your own gender, or never writing fantasy and science fiction (heaven forbid!!!); it's about letting your experiences form the basis of what you write, of writing from your own pain, your own suffering, extrapolating from things you've actually felt and translating them into similar situations, even if the characters are inhuman or the setting isn't Earth.

It's what you know, stretched further, deeper, broader, applied to the whole range of human experience. It's about knowing which bits of what you've experienced are part of the human condition, which bits resonate; it's about making sure your work rings true."

It's honesty.

And that implicit challenge? Well, this is how the phrase really ought to go:

Write what you know - and know more.

6 comments:

beth said...

So true--and I like the end of that, "know more." Amen!

Eric said...

This is an awesome post. I really like your realization at the end, because it's so apt. Nice job.

Yunaleska said...

This is so true. It's only now, after several life events, that I can write some of my wips. The originals were flat. Th enew ones...well they touch on what I've experienced, and it shows. It does make a difference.

Krispy said...

The "write what you know" phrase should come with an asterisk or something. :) Great post!

Danyelle said...

Amen Inky. For me, it also means Research!

Inkblot said...

Thanks for all your comments :o)

Yuna - yes, I have a few stories that are the same. I just didn't have the life experience to write them when I first tried.

And Dany - yes, research. What you can't experience yourself firsthand, you must research and experience second hand! :)

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