Sunday, November 10, 2013

Write What You Know?

Write what you know.  A maxim regularly proposed by people who don't write to people, especially young people, who want to write.  Possibly the most vilified, misapplied and misunderstood of all writing advice.

On the face of it, it seems like artistic sabotage, especially for a fantasy writer.  Followed literally, it would mean, unless you've had a life like Jack London or Joseph Conrad, all most of us would be able to write would be little, slice-of-life tales of social realism.  Not that there's anything wrong with stories of that kind if they're what interests you, but it isn't what all authors want to write — and, more to the point, it's not what all readers want to read.

It's especially bad advice to give a child who wants to write.  Again, the child might genuinely want to tell a story of someone of their own age going to school and living the same kind of life they do, but most will want something more exciting to write about.  In any case, the worst possible thing to do to a child-writer, or any child, is to clip the wings of their imagination.  Their work's highly unlikely to get published, whether they write school stories or improbable tales of international espionage, and it's far better for their future enthusiasm if they have fun doing it.

The literal interpretation would certainly rule out any fantasy.  How can anyone write about immortal sorcerers, wandering swordsmen or swordswomen, meetings with gods or commanding vast armies if they write only what they know?

But that's not all there is to it, of course.  Write what you know is possibly the worst-phrased maxim to mask genuinely good advice.

What lies behind it was expressed beautifully by the Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany, who in the early 20th century virtually invented the fantasy short story as we know it.  Dunsany wrote exotic tales of Elfland, the edge of the world and the lands that lie beyond the fields we know, but he considered:

It is my belief that those sudden visionary pictures which are the true essence of any art arise like a flower from a seed that has fallen into the mind, sometimes in infancy, sometimes in later childhood, sometimes in adult years, but often as imperceptibly as any seed blown on the wind finds a home for itself in the earth at the end of its wandering.  Bricks without straw are more easily made than imagination without memories.

Half a century later, another great writer, Bob Dylan, said it more succinctly and far more colloquially:

Open up yer eyes an' ears an' yer influenced
an' there's nothing you can do about it

My own favourite image of this process is a vast cooking-pot.  Into the pot goes everything that happens to me, everything that happens around me, everything I hear about, every item from the news, everything I read, watch or listen to, everything I think or discuss with other people.  The pot simmers constantly over the heat and I stir it regularly.  When I write, I dip in a ladle and take a spoonful out.  Everything I threw in is there, but changed, blended into new forms and new combinations that bear little resemblance to the raw ingredients.  This is the stew that makes my stories.

So how does this work?  In At An Uncertain Hour, I had to write about a character who reluctantly takes on commanding the army of a great alliance for a thousand years to defeat an evil empire, even though what he really wants to do is wander the world on an enchanted ship.  Strange to say, I've never actually done any of that myself.  Hardly writing what I know.

On the other hand, like most of us, I've had to choose between fulfilling moral and social obligation and letting myself drift along doing what I love.  I've had to square up to taking on positions of authority — not commanding a vast army, but managing people at work or running performance clubs — in spite of doubts about whether I'm really a natural for it.  I've fulfilled duties while dreaming of being free and footloose.

In addition to this, of course, I've observed many other people in positions of authority (often over me), followed the news about public figures, read works of history and biography about great leaders and generals of the past.  All in all, I'm surprisingly qualified to write about this character.

The things we know above everything else are our feelings and emotions, and these are what we tap into and extrapolate to experiences we've never known and are never likely to know.  Suppose your character is being hauled before the King, wondering whether the sentence is going to be instant execution.  It's not only unlikely that this has happened to any modern writer — it would also be highly inadvisable to attempt to seek out the experience. 

On the other hand, you might well remember sometime having been called in to see the boss, wondering just how much trouble you're in, terrified that you're going to be out on your ear.  Resurrect that memory and remember just how you felt; then expand and transfer it, try to feel those emotions again but much, much more intensely, and apply them to how another person might feel.

Imagination = experience + extrapolation + empathy.  As simple as that.

All right, it isn't really simple, but it's a start.  Of course, there are practical issues as well: things a writer might simply not know.  I recall long ago hearing a writers' cautionary tale.  A sheltered Edwardian lady wrote a novel in which her hero went to an Oxbridge college and ended up rowing in the University Boat Race.  Now, the whole point of a rowing team is that they have to learn to keep in perfect synchronisation, otherwise chaos ensues; but this author, in her enthusiasm, wrote a sentence something to the effect of Everyone rowed fast, but {the hero} rowed faster.

The moral of the tale was supposed to be that she'd no business writing about something she had no experience of, but I take a completely different moral from it.  If she wanted to write about the Boat Race, fair enough, but she should have got hold of a good book about rowing techniques and read it cover to cover.  Ideally, she should also have found a nearby rowing club and gone to watch practice there.  Perhaps talked to some of the rowers (shocking for a nice lady, but she could have taken a chaperone) and memorised some of the phrases they used and the experiences they'd had.  That would have enabled her to write the episode not only without that obvious blunder, but with a depth of involvement that made it seem she must be an expert rower.

We're living in an age where, compared with that Edwardian lady, we have any information we need just the click of a button away.  It's not always quite that easy, of course, but we really have no excuse but laziness for not researching the things we put into our stories.

Anyway, research is fun.  It's an opportunity to learn things, gain new experiences.  It might even take our lives off in rich, unexpected directions.  At worst, it'll stand us in good stead in trivia quizzes.

Write what you know?  Perhaps it's time to abandon that misphrased saying and the inadvertent damage it can do, and bring out in its place the true meanings that it masks.  Write what you feel.  Write what excites you.  Write what you want to know.


  1. :) Yep, that one is so often tossed out there, sometimes by people who are genuinely frustrated by the way their profession or life experience is misrepresented (like military veterans who resent civilians writing books about life in the army), but often as a way of discouraging young people from writing anything fun at all. Supposedly, it originally meant know at an emotional level rather than a factual, but it's taken too literally too often. The most common way I've seen it (mis)used lately is by people who don't like to write opposite-sex characters, or are afraid to.

    Know what you write is a better adage, I think.

  2. By complete coincidence, Chuck Wendig (who doesn't need publicity from me but deserves it anyway) just posted a brilliant definition: "Write what you know except when that stops you from writing what you want to write — then use it as an excuse to know more and write more."

  3. I forget the 'write what you know' and go for the"write what you've experienced' and that can come from life experience,personal dreams, the inspiration of a painting, etc. For someone like me who has experienced the death of a child, been married for times, visited numerous homicide scenes as a prosecutor and dared to begin a writing career at 70, there are now subject matter limitations. Great post!

  4. " Into the pot goes everything that happens to me, everything that happens around me, everything I hear about, every item from the news, everything I read, watch or listen to, everything I think or discuss with other people."

    Exactly! People will always be people regardless of the fantastic circumstances they are in. Write about people in a real way and the story usually works.

    Beautifully expressed.