Write What You Know? No…. Maybe?

09 Nov

Young writers are told to “write what you know”. Sounds like good advice, but the truth is i find it to actually be half good advice and half very bad advice.

I read a lot of fantastic literature: Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, hell, at the moment i’m reading George R.R. Martin. And they’re doing what i like to see really creative writers do: making shit up off the top of their heads.

You don’t have to write only about the world around you to be great and compelling. You can make shit up. The more you immerse yourself in it and think through the details, the more likely it will engage a reader. Many writers of fantastical fiction write out detailed histories and templates of the worlds they create, far more than they’ll ever use in the story. (An idea it is no secret i have employed for the Steampunk Opera).

I don’t expect you to actually have first hand experience about everything you write about. I don’t care, unLESS you don’t pull it off. Maybe you need to do some homework on the details. Maybe you need to immserse yourself more.  Maybe your imagination and cognitive skills are enough all by themselves to do a good enough job of creating something and selling me on the reality of it. However you succeed at it, please try, because i love made up shit.

However… there is such a thing as inexperience and lack of insight that can bring your work plummeting down. If you have never loved passionately, if you have never had your heart broken, let’s be honest, you will probably suck at writing about it. Where i think the ‘Write what you know’ advice holds weight is in the realm of emotions and people.

Writers with a great understanding of human nature, a great eye for people and the ability to sympathize with them write the best characters. It’s the truth, and you need experience to pull this off. Picture this: a really young guy wants to write a story about a banker. He’s been drawn into the entire anti-banking furor that’s currently circulating the western world and wants to write about a middle aged banker and in the process show the inhumanity in the system.

However, he knows no bankers. He does not interact with many people outside his age range. His story has a very passionate agenda in that he’s going to show why the banker sucks. How intriguing and deep do you think the 50 year old banker’s character is going to be?

Not very. The writer is writing mostly out of an agenda, with no actual experience and insight into truly being a 50 year old man in the social class, with the actual business pressures a real person would have. Write what you know is indeed good advice. He would better suited writing his morality tale using the social types he interacts with and not sacrificing character depth for moral agenda.

However, does this mean a woman cannot write a believable male character or vice versa? A person can never pull off characters from different social classes, spheres and backgrounds as them? Hogwash! of course they can. And this is where experience, sympathy and an eye for human character come in.

Characters are often made up from composites. A bunch of the writer, a tons of little bits pulled from people they’ve known and observed. And some… you know…. imagination. The exact formula for character creation differs from writer to writer. What i find personally the most important is the emotional center of the character. I’m not a novel writer. I write stories i set to music. I’m not so hot at dialogue, but i’ll never need to worry about it because i am moderately decent at lyric writing and work like a dog at it to continually improve. But the emotional issue that defines the character in the short tales i tell…. yes. Write What You Know.

Annabelle is terrified she’s going to die a failure. Hmmmmm…… wouldn’t be one of my pathologies, would it?

Edgar in Act 2…. he is me many years ago after having my heart broken and wishing to prove myself, “show her” wanting to become so big she would one day see (oh young men)…. and yet i write from Fay’s point of view too because we find ourselves on both sides of the coin. We grow to have understandings of multiple points of view because we and the people we know deeply are indeed on every possible side of any given issue.

And Priscilla’s frustration and feeling of being trapped, the days fading into each other and yet unable to step outside her life, trapped in a prison of her own making, one that is just comfortable enough to keep herself caged in, but not enough to ever satisfy her… for heavens sake, who hasn’t been there? I know this one. This pattern, like all patterns in our lives, repeats for me in certain intervals.

So i do believe, when hitting emotional foundations, do write what you know. Or be REALLY damn good. Writing about grief but never lost anyone? I’m not sure you should. I’m not saying you can’t touch on grief, i’m just saying if you’re going to really go into it and don’t actually know it firsthand… you had better be really damn good, and probably you should stick with what you know. (or be out of the box creative. See, you can NOT know what you’re talking about but out of the box creative will give a new twist and you won’t come off like you’re trying to talk about something you don’t know about)

You can imagine your entire story, but not emotions. That’s my point. You can imagine people, but only experience and insight can really bring them to life. Half the time, write what you know. The other half….. just go nuts with it.



Posted by on November 9, 2011 in Uncategorized



3 responses to “Write What You Know? No…. Maybe?

  1. matthew

    November 10, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Indeed, agenda before good writing is the road to Ayn Randism. It works the same way with music. Perfectly fine to have a “message” song, but for chrissakes, make it catchy.

    Just watched Margin Call, a very fine flick that covers a 24-hour period in the life of a NYC firm on the brink of the bigass financial crisis. They could easily have portrayed these people as one-dimensional powermongers, but instead they allowed for variations in morality among the characters, making the point much more profound.

  2. paulms

    November 10, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Well that’s the thing. In a truly engaging and intelligent story, no matter the genre, cardboard cut outs of characters are insulting. No one is the bad guy in their own head. Moral greys are how the world actually functions and it makes for more interesting characters and conflicts. I purposefully stayed away from having any bad guys any bad guys in the opera. Or more to the point, the bad guys are the very main characters themselves, who make bad decisions for i hope more or less sympathetic reasons (to a point) and those decisions make the world a worse place. Which is how i feel things actually work. I’d be curious to check out this movie you recommend.

  3. matthew

    November 10, 2011 at 12:21 am

    It’s in a few theaters over here at the moment, might be in some dark corner of the interwebs by now.


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