The Writing Process

Write What You Know, or What You Love?

Good advice by Charles Stanley Reinhart. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Good advice by Charles Stanley Reinhart. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, some of it very good. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “Have the courage to write badly” is essential for any writer who doesn’t want to give in to utter despair whilst reading through their first drafts. Harper Lee’s advice to aspiring writers that they would be “wise to develop a thick hide” is more relevant than ever in the age of Amazon and Goodreads. Paul Theroux’s blunt suggestion that young would-be writers should “leave home” makes sense – your parents are unlikely to understand, still less support, your decision to become a writer and starve in a garret, so perhaps you’d do well to cut the apron strings. As for Dorothy Parker’s advice that the greatest favour one could do for wannabe writers was to shoot them while they were still happy – well, we’ve probably all felt like that at one time or another.

Certain other nuggets of advice, on the other hand – well, they may be good, but I have my doubts. When I read Kurt Vonnegut’s advice never to use semicolons, for example, I broke out in a cold sweat; I use them all the time (see?). As for Hemingway’s famous dictum, “Write drunk, edit sober” – well, I did once try writing after a few glasses. The result was a confused and largely illegible scrawl, which not even the most careful (and sober) editing could salvage.

“Write what you know” is perhaps the most common piece of writing advice in existence – so common, indeed, that even non-writers remind me of it with surprising regularity, and seemingly unshakable authority. But does it belong in the category of good advice, or advice that is best ignored?

I ask because I’m currently working on a project that may, or may not, come to fruition, a novel that revolves around four young women. I know all about certain aspects of their lives – living in big cities on low budgets, worrying about boyfriends, trying to carve out their own identities – largely because I’ve had similar experiences myself. However, that represents only a short period of their lives. Thereafter, they all go on to follow a particular, and rather unusual, career. And about this, it’s fair to say, I know very little.

This, of course, is where the internet comes into its own. There’s a wealth of information out there, a mere mouse-click away. I already know far more about their profession than I did. However, I don’t know it intimately; I haven’t experienced it, and can only guess what it feels like. I suppose I could talk to people who follow this particular career; the problem is that most of them (at least once they achieve a certain level of success) are rich and famous, and therefore highly unlikely to waste time discussing their lifestyles with a nobody like me.

Why do I want to write about it, then? Because it’s what makes the lives of these four women so fascinating. The whole point is that their lives are unusual, and therefore very interesting on a purely human level, and rich in possibilities.

Well, I’m not rich and famous. I don’t drink champers for breakfast or fight my way through hordes of paparazzi each time I leave the house (obscurity certainly has its advantages). So if this particular project pans out, I won’t really be writing what I know at all.

Does it matter? Should I write this one off as a bad job, or crack on regardless?

When this is what you know, why on earth not write about it? Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
When this is what you know, why on earth not write about it? Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

“Write what you know” is of course all very well if you’re like Hemingway, and spend your spare time fighting bulls and driving ambulances in warzones. What if, like me, you teach English as a foreign language, and devote your spare, non­-writing, non-sleeping time to walking the dog and watching random videos on YouTube? Is this all my fictional output can amount to? Novels about women teaching English in Italy and occasionally watching old documentaries about the Mary Celeste?

Knowing something intimately can make a novel wonderfully rich and vivid. For example – and off the top of my head – in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys drew upon her childhood in the West Indies to recreate the landscape, the culture, and the patois. But what if you don’t have that personal knowledge? Does that necessarily debar you from writing about a given place, profession, or period? What about sci-fi, historical fiction, or fantasy? Should Tolkien have stuck with producing Anglo-Saxon dictionaries? Should modern aspiring writers write only about struggling to pay off their student loans and working in a school/supermarket/office while trying desperately to interest publishers in the books they’ve written in their spare time?

Where does the “write what you know” advice come from, then? I’ve heard it attributed to Hemingway, but so far as I can tell he only said this: “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true or alive.” Ironically, then, Hemingway was not telling us to write what we know. He was making the point that fiction – something that is, literally, untrue – can nevertheless express an underlying truth.

And it seems to me that the process of writing fiction is concerned with far more than the simple matter of what we know. It’s about what we don’t yet know, but want to find out – and not necessarily through simple empirical means, but by an imaginative, empathetic alchemy. Curiously, fiction – the exercise of writing untruths – can be enlightening; one of the most instructive exercises of which I’m personally aware is that of imagining oneself in another person’s shoes. Besides, fiction taps into those “universal experiences” that nearly all of us have. Whatever our circumstances, we all feel pain, joy and love, worry, and have blazing rows with our nearest and dearest. And people, surely, are ultimately just people – whether we’re being chased by swarms of paparazzi or trawling the aisles of Tesco looking for the crisps, we’re surely not so very different beneath the skin.

So what’s your take on this question? Should we write what we know, or what we love? Should I stick to novels about English teachers? I’d love to hear your opinions.

Re-blogged from Authors Electric.

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8 thoughts on “Write What You Know, or What You Love?

  1. Go it, Mari, I say! I’m fascinated to hear something of your new project.
    I think that ‘write what you know’ old saw, wherever it came from originally, if anywhere- has been used as a bucket of cold water to douse countless fascinating projects by those who are addicted – for whatever reason – to the humdrum, and may even repress their imaginative flights.
    I so agree the creative process, strange blend of imagination, the workings of the unconscious, memory and something more (maybe even Jung’s collective unconscious?) as it is, can’t be easily contained within the confines of an individual’s own experience – and I don’t think it should be myself.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. I began to suspect a long time ago that the old “write what you know” thing, at least if applied strictly and literally, could actually hinder a writer’s creative process. It’s heartening to see that many others, both here and on Authors Electric, agree!

  2. If we all only wrote strictly what we knew, nothing by Italo Calvino would exist. Portions of Shirley Jackson’s oeuvre would remain, but would likely be bland and lacking without the (hopefully!) imaginative flourishes. Asimov and Phillip K. Dick may as well have never written – if we interpret the phrase “what you know” as literal empirical, categorized knowledge. I believe you are right, and we can “know” by “an imaginative, empathetic alchemy.” This doesn’t require firsthand physical experience, just an attuned imagination and possibly a more than usually permeable barrier between “I” and “You.” I don’t literally “know” most of what I write. I try and “know” the locales and get the details of recognizable places correct, but I don’t have firsthand experience of human sacrifice, painting, or what it feels like to have a seizure. In fact, anytime I write about a scent, I am making it up; I don’t have a sense of smell! I ask people what things smell like, or and just as common, Google “What does {fill in the blank} smell like?”

    I think you should try contacting some of the people doing the job your characters have. You never know, they might surprise you. Everyone loves talking about something they love, especially to a writer!

    Thank you for the wonderful post, Mari!

    -aniko

    1. Thanks for the comment, Aniko! I’m glad that you agree. I, like you, try to underpin my stories with a layer of hard factual groundwork, whether it be through research or through what I happen to have firsthand experience of. Thereafter, I let my imagination get to work – and yes, I think it really does help to have quite a permeable barrier between “I” and “you”!

      I might try contacting someone with this intriguing job. I suppose I might get lucky, though I doubt it!

  3. A new project, eh, Mari? I’m intrigued! This was an interesting discussion. From my point of view, most writing advice is generalised rubbish. And “write what you know” comes pretty near the top of the rubbish heap. If it’s a book that you feel compelled to write then do so.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Paul. What you’ve said about much writing advice being hopelessly generalised is close to my own feelings. These things might help newbies; once you’ve got some writing experience under your belt, they become a great deal less helpful, and may actually be harmful.

  4. I completely agree with Paul and Lucinda. I think that if every writer stuck to “writing what they knew” our supply of fantastic, compelling novels would be cut to a small fraction of what’s available now. I like to revise the “write what you know” statement to “write what your IMAGINATION knows”.

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