Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Write What You Know vs. Use What You Know to Write

"Write what you know," has long been a principle given aspiring writers.  Today’s bookshelves are crowded with popular medical thrillers written by former medical professionals; psychological thrillers written by former psychologists and crime novels written by former policemen, judges and attorneys. Relying on knowledge accumulated during a former profession gives these novels an authenticity that readers recognize and appreciate because they use the proper terms and know the proper procedures they write about. "Write what you know," works for them.

But what about those of us who don’t have the medical and scientific background of Michael Crichton and lack the legal expertise of John Grisham? What do we write about? How do we gain the expertise or even develop the thought that we have the right stuff to compose a short story, write a novel, or pitch an idea for an article? 

Perhaps it will help you find inspiration if you replace that old adage "write what you know," with "don't write what you know," "write what you want to know," or my favorite, "use what you know to write." 
Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to "Write What You Know", which explains why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery. 
- Joe Haldeman, an American science fiction writer
"Writing what you know" is restricting, in essence forcing writers to write only autobiographical material. How does a science fiction writer create a new world or invent a unique creature if he is limited to what he already knows? How does any writer create fiction with that onerous restriction in place?

The following statement appeared in an article titled, "Don't Write What You Know," written by Bret Anthony Johnston for the Atlantic Magazine in August, 2011. Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. He is the director of creative writing at Harvard University. The full article can be seen at:
To be perfectly clear: I don’t tell students not to ferret through their lives for potential stories. I don’t want, say, a soldier who served in Iraq to shy away from writing war stories. Quite the opposite. I want him to freight his fiction with rich details of combat. I want the story to evoke the texture of the sand and the noise of a Baghdad bazaar, the terrible and beautiful shade of blue smoke ribboning from the barrel of his M-4. His experience should liberate his imagination, not restrict it. Of course I want him to take inspiration where he can find it. What I don’t want—and what’s prone to happen when writers set out to write what they know—is for him to think an imagined story is less urgent, less harrowing or authentic, than a true story.
"Using what you know to write," is what I believe Johnston is talking about when he says experiences should "liberate your imagination, not restrict it."  If you are breathing, you have thoughts, ideas, opinions, hopes, desires, wants, needs, passions, ideals, dreams and nightmares. You have known joy and pain. You've learned about relationships, the weather, the society in which you live, religion and your world. You have likes and dislikes. You have prejudices. You have been a child, a son or daughter, a student; and possibly a spouse, parent and grandparent.

Rather than restrict you to "writing what you know," these realities should expand your options, give you direction and infuse your work with richness.
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 and alive. - Ernest Hemingway
So, whether you love dogs, grow sunflowers, suffered a stroke, or know how to whistle through your nose – include it in your writing. Whether you love vampires, hate hot air balloons or have an opinion about botox – choose writing projects that interest you, then liberally sprinkle tidbits of yourself  throughout your work.

What excites you?  What drives you crazy? What idea is festering in the back of your mind? Pick one, do the research, then get to work, "using what you know to write."

1 comment:

Jennifer Rova said...

Great post! Research is one of the best parts of writing for me. Glad you burst the balloon myth of writing only what you know. Very little would be written if that were a dictum followed by writers.