Write What You Know (if you know anything)

This is the first in my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense.’ Keep checking back here for more. In the meantime, visit Cow Pasture Chronicles for my guest-post introducing my idea of good Metafiction.

tinman

Frank Baum didn’t actually know a tinman.

A writer trying to follow advice as is like a kid living with parents who hate each other. Every time you think you’ve listened to the wisest possible words, and crafted your masterpiece accordingly, something contradictory comes along to spank it back to Penny Dreadful status. This profession (like many, I’m sure) seems to depend more on balancing strategies than relying on any single set of them. That advice you are getting may not contradict common sense as much as you think.

Let’s take the classic: ‘Write what you know.’ Anyone who’s ever lifted a pen, even if only as a student, has had their well-meaning Great-Aunt Mabel over his or her shoulder, espousing the timeworn guarantee that ‘writing what you know’ will launch you to the same lofty heights of popularity that she enjoyed in her Bridge club. The problem with that advice is simply this: Some of us don’t know very much. I know how to write, I think—though sometimes better than others—and if you give me six or eight weeks, I can get a recalcitrant English student to do his homework. Usually.

Other than that, ‘what I know’ might not be very literature-worthy: how to change an electrical socket and survive, for example, or how to install a driver so that my new Plug-n-Play printer actually prints. Since many literary agents dissuade literature about writing and teaching, Mabel might have to make do with reading my treatise on how I safely ground my technology. I doubt even she would enjoy it.

Novels that sell often seem to contradict this advice. I doubt, for example, that Frank L. Baum knew any flying monkeys or grumpy tinmen addicted to oil, or that Stephanie Meyer had ever met a sparkling vampire eager to disrespect Stoker.

So, isn’t it true that these successful authors wrote things they didn’t know?

Not entirely: being imaginative may not always contradict advice about writing to our knowledge, because here are some things we all know that can fit into almost any story:

  • Characters: those people in your life who behave in unbelievable ways.
  • Settings: incredible places you’ve been and seen, that may seem almost fictional.
  • Morals and ethics: Lessons you’ve learned—perhaps the hard way—about how to live.
  • Emotions: The moments that define you as a person.

It would be a tough audience of readers who wouldn’t respond well to those combinations of a good writer’s experiences… and none of them preclude creating a plotline that you’ve never experienced. If the office bully’s attitude comes from insecurity, there is your cowardly lion; if your Middle East tour makes wonder how civilization ever arose in that climate, you’ve found your planet Arrakis.

When I wrote Starlite Lanes, I had never met a Cuban so patriotic that he would launch his own attack on American soil, but I had met personalities like every member of the county bowling team who stops him. I also knew, more importantly, the love of land and lifestyle that can drive anyone into action.

In that sense, then, I wrote what I knew, so who knows? Maybe even Aunt Mabel will inspire her own character one day.

Comments, please: what classic advice have you followed in unexpected ways?

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9 thoughts on “Write What You Know (if you know anything)

  1. I was ever so stuck once. After reading advice from Hemingway I decided to try the “Write one true thing.” I just kept thinking about what might be the true thing that I was trying to articulate. It really did help. It was a bit like trying to frame a lesson objective well. What is it that I really want to teach? Not how, but what, exactly. I wound up turning my chapter around to flow from the true thing. My character was lost. Really lost. Life lost. That was the truth. When I was able to see and feel that, the way to make it real for the reader came to me – unstuck.

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    • Yes, that is nice; so the ‘true thing’ that you ‘know’ drives the story, even if the story is deeply fictional or even fantastic. In this case, your ‘true thing’ was thematic, which is probably where truth lives… but I think that pieces of what a writer knows can enter nearly any element of fiction, to keep it authentic.

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  2. Here it is… this is what I read in a Movable Feast. This is the advice I tried.

    Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll-work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

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  3. An excellent post and thank you for dropping by and commenting on my own on this subject. There are so many helpful articles and advice on writing but I think we do have to make our own way through the maze and just pick out here and there what may apply.

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    • Yes, there is a lot of truth to that, Wendy. Unfortunately, though, the reality of the industry is needing to balance that with what works for publishers and agents… and first figuring out what that might be!

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  4. Pingback: Show, Don’t Tell (unless you’re in Kindergarten). | COW PASTURE CHRONICLES

  5. Pingback: Viewpoint Variation | Words from K. Alan

  6. Pingback: ‘Write What You Know…’ but how well should you know it? | Words from K. Alan

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