Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Write what you know. And don't.

"Write what you know" generates a lot of discussion, some arguments, and even some anger.

WRITER 1: What do you mean, "Write what you know"? If I wrote what I knew, I'd write about sunken couches and empty cashew tins.

WRITER 2:  Yes. Do that. Because you have felt the couch. You have eaten the cashews. You know the taste of the salt on your fingers, the corduroy rub of the flattened cushion under your buttocks. That is real. That is pain. Write it. Write!

WRITER 1: I'd rather use my imagination and write what I don't know, thank you very much. I want to write about angels.

WRITER 2: Are you an angel?

WRITER 1: No. I mean, I'm not not an angel. Like, I'm not a bad person, or anything, but I'm not--

WRITER  2: How can you write about angels if you don't know what it's like to be an angel?

This isn't what "Write what you know" means.

I think the reason for much of the defensiveness elicited by "Write what you know" is that it makes people who haven't had the opportunity to travel, or meet many people, or attend certain types of functions - whatever it is they want to write about that they haven't done - feel threatened. Makes them feel like someone is telling them not to write. Like someone is telling them they're not prepared, experienced, or otherwise "ready." This can, understandably, make a writer feel a little stifled, and probably confused. ("Whatever! It's not like J.K. Rowling ever played a game of Quidditch. And did Stephen King really bring a cat back to life by burying it in a special plot? I hardly think so!")

"Write what you know" is sound advice, but it loses its value when taken too literally, because so many of us have experienced far less than what we want to write about. Of course there'll be anger when we think "write what you know" means "Don't write about any little thing you've never experienced." That leaves a lot out.

Use your imagination - by all means! Please use it. Write about all kinds of things you've never done and never seen. But when it comes to writing about the larger issues - love, death, intense fear, betrayal, friendship, loss - you won't be convincing if you haven't experienced it, and your writing will fall flat. If you've never known romantic love, you won't have the experience necessary to render it with the depth, the heart, or the complexity it deserves. If you've never lost someone you care about, you won't have become acquainted with the many emotions, some of them unexpected, that accompany that loss, and your writing will feel false and hollow.

But if you haven't known love, surely you know the wish for love, or the wish to never love. Write about that.

If you haven't lost someone, you know the fear of losing someone. Write about that.

If you don't know the breakup of a friendship, but you know what makes a friendship last, write about that.

If you don't know the fear of starting a new journey, maybe you know the feeling of wanting to - or of being afraid to. Write about that.

The core of the story is where what you know is important. Everything else is decoration, and decoration can always use a good imagination.

- Lyla P.

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