Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Authority of Experience (Write What You Know)

Last Thursday, Michelle listed "Write what you know" as one of the Nine Big Lies about writing, and I chimed in with my own derision at the idea. "Write what you're interested in," I said. My old agent used to say, "Write what you care about." I like that one.

"Write what you know" goes wrong in a couple of ways:

1. When it encourages people to essentially just write memoir, assuming that their life or the life of their grandmother or whomever, is going to be fascinating to everyone else. That's rarely the case. "Write what you know" gets interpreted as "write about yourself." We are usually not as interesting as we think we are.

2. People tend to write less than spellbindingly about subjects with which they are intimately familiar, because they can't really capture the shiny newness of first contact with the coolness of their subject. If you've ever heard an expert talk about something, you may have noticed your eyes glazing over just before you fell asleep. "Write what you know" gets interpreted as "write an encylopedia article." Facts and history do not necessarily make compelling reading.

To sum up, "write what you know" tends to result in lackluster prose about not particularly interesting subject matter. Middle school may have been a real bitch, filled with daily trauma for you, but it was just like that for everyone else and no, we don't so much want to read about it. Unless your middle school years were when you began to think that you were the Messiah and you wrote a 1,000-page novel about it called The Instructions.

So, if you think that "write what you know" is an exhortation to write about yourself because you are a unique, beautiful snowflake with an important story to tell because Every Life Is A Biography, you might want to think it through again, Fagin.

But: There is a time when "write what you know" gets it exactly right. This is not when you are writing confessional memoirs, but when you are using your firsthand knowledge of a subject to flesh out the world of a novel. This is when you speak with authority about a topic and imbue your narrative with truth.

Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award-winning novel by Jaimy Gordon, is set in the world of cheap horse racing. Jaimy Gordon, back in her youth, worked at a down-at-heel race track and was able to use her memories of the time and place to paint a compelling and believable background for her story.

Antonia Byatt spent a good deal of her adult working life in the world of academia, teaching writing and literature, and this firsthand experience adds the weight of reality to several of her books (The Game, The Virgin in the Garden and a bunch of others).

Iain Pears' job as an art dealer came in handy when he was writing his series of Jonathan Argyle murder mysteries, which are set in the world of--that's right--art dealing and art theft.

I will spare you an exhaustive list. My point is that "write what you know" is often poor advice when you are looking for subject matter, but excellent advice when you are building a fictional world.

Also! Important announcement! The proofs for Notes From Underground have gone out to the authors! That means that we are close to publication date, which we've declared to be on or around March 1, 2011! That's soon! Be excited, because we are!


  1. I totally agree! I talked about this in my blog a while back. I doubt Stephen King ever had a possessed car -but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of truth in that story anyway.

    I was accused of not writing what I know by someone (someone who has never read my manuscript) because my book wasn't about the film undustry or motherhood. The thing is... People don't always know just how much we really DO know -and that can make our friends take us less seriously as writers than strangers, when we don't fit their impression of us.

  2. That is very true, actually. I seem to be always drawing on personal experiences, even in the most fantastical settings.

  3. Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly.
    As an ironworker, I can tell you that you'd rather drive a pencil into your ear than read a book about ironworking - especially one written by me. However, I am guilty of giving my MC that occupation, but only to draw on our shared laments for realism.

  4. Possibly better advice would be to look again at what you think you know. It’s impossible not to draw on what you’ve experienced or learned – we all do that – but unless you’re writing a textbook why would you simply want to record what you know? That said I’ve always found that my books go off in their own directions anyway so making plans only gets me started. I never know where I’m going to end up.

  5. Lynette: I think one problem especially prevalent in beginning sf/f writers is that they are so caught up in world-building and creating something new and surprising that they forget to make their stories realistic in the way that we all recognize. That is, we all know what life is like and a lot of beginner fiction is anything but lifelike because it's not written from life experience, it's written wholly from the imaginary.

    S.M. Carriere: Yes, exactly. That's what I mean in my comment to Lynette.

    Charlie: I refuse to make any of my protagonists into guys with middle-management positions at universities. I won't do it. No, I won't. But at the same time, a lot of my characters are smart guys working for less smart guys, which is personal experience (if I can safely call myself a smart guy).

    Jim Murdoch: I confess that I'm not quite sure what you mean. Are you saying we should doubt what we think we know? If so, how do you use that doubt when writing? Color me the pale gray of confusion.

  6. Maybe know what you write is a better way of putting it?

  7. Domey: Hey, that's catchy. Though maybe "you can use what you know" is more what I'm getting at. But, alas, that's not as pithy as Know What You Write.

  8. Mr. Bailey, are you allowed to agree with yourself?

  9. It’s a matter of degrees, the difference between knowledge and understanding. Before my parents died I knew what death was but I didn’t understand it. When they died I then understood loss but I didn’t understand why my experience of grief was so different to the people around me. It wasn’t until I could put some distance between myself and the experience and write about it that I started to understand but then I found that grief wasn’t really the central focus of the book, it became more about identity and who we are in relation to other people. We’re invariably half of some relationship whether that be son-father, husband-wife, brother-sister but what happens when one half of that relationship vanishes: what does Left become when Right is no longer there?

  10. Jim: I see what you're getting at, but the problem is you never know when the experience you have is not the depth of possible experience. So you have to use what you have, whatever it is, don't you? I've experienced personal grief over the years and it's not been the same each time. So I think that "understanding" is far from universal in the particulars, and I'm not sure where that gets us. I'm also not sure that it matters much. We are not called upon to give the last word on anything.

  11. Grief is personal, yes, but when people start making up lists of what you should be going it is possible to feel that you’ve not got it ‘right’ and that’s how I felt when both my parents died. When I wrote my last book I was examining my personal take on grief and trying to understand it. The knowledge was all there, the experience lived through, but I lacked insight into what I’d experienced. I was writing about what I knew, my parents had died and I was on my own now, but I had lost more than I father – I was no longer a son. I have been a son for forty years and now I wasn’t. I missed being a son. It was only after spending a long time thinking about it as I wrote the book that I started to realise that I didn’t know my own feelings as well as I thought I did.

  12. No, I totally get that. I just also think that there is a truth to being in a state of not understanding one's own feelings. That groping toward fuller knowledge is valid, too, as long as it's the truth for that author.

    I don't think that one has to have anything all sorted out before it's incorporated into art. The absolutely confused unexpressable can be good, too. But again, as straight autobiography none of this likely makes good reading.

  13. The problem is that none of these sayings are always right or always wrong. I like "know what you write" and "write what you're passionate about" because it implies that we care enough to research and learn the things we need to know.

    I also think that many times we learn while we write. Writing helps us clarify and understand. Maybe that's why we have such a drive to write a certain story, it's something we need to explore.

  14. spbowers: I think you're onto something with the need to explore. The books I write all revolve around things that I'm willing to think constantly about for a year or more, and contain things that I want to know more about. The first stage in writing my novels is to gather things around me that might have to do with the book, or might be so personally interesting at that moment that I'll find a way to work them into the book. So writing-as-exploration works for me. The stories that come entirely from within writers, that don't look to the larger world, tend to strike me as hollow, or at least shallow. But there still needs to be that personal truth as seen by that particular author. So it's a mess. Inhabit your writing, but let the writing be bigger than you are.

    Say, who's for coffee and donuts?

  15. I think that doing heaps and heaps of research, and wanting to share it (in order to sound as if you're writing what you know) is also a huge trap. I've got pages and pages of research and used it in about 10 sentences worth of words. Hopefully just enough detail to convey my interest in getting the details right.

  16. Fantastic way to expound upon the phrase, Scott! No matter what I write or where I set my novels, there is always something in my real-life which comes in handy. Sometimes it's the most random, odd things, too. This is part of why I love to write.

  17. Nevets: Are you ill?

    jbchicoine: Usually I have to read hundreds of pages of research to feel confident enough to write a single sentence. Which, you know, blows. At some point I'll write about the present in my home town and I won't have to look up anything.

    Michelle: Too true! And often it's the little things that I get from real life. In Cocke & Bull there's a bit where a guy walks through a field and pollen from the wildflowers brushes off onto his pants legs. If that hadn't happened to me I wouldn't have thought of that detail, and it's one of my favorite passages in the book. Also in that book, I got to use the word "trammel" and that was nice.

  18. Hmm...maybe I should write a story based on my heady days at Microsoft and called it "The Windows Network" or something.
    Then again, no.
    BUT I do think the "don't write about crap you have no idea about" should be a rule.
    Meaning, do the research.
    I'm about to write a story about early 20th century life in the Ukraine under Tsarist rule. Do I know what that was like? No. But I plan to learn.

  19. Andrew: Damned straight. I'm buried right now under a pile of books about Manhattan at the beginning of the 20th century. I'm looking for everything, you know. What the street names were, where the trains ran, what magazines people read, what people wore (derbys for men, shirtfronts for women), what was at the theater, what the music was, what people did for a living and how much they got paid, and all sorts of other stuff. At least there are a lot of photos of New York from that time period, and I've even seen some of the buildings in person. Then I have to learn a lot about boats.

  20. DUDE! That's where my story starts!
    We should trade notes offline.

    I just ordered a book about the lower east side 1880-1920 about immigrants. In my story he then goes to Paris and Bucharest (still need good period books on those places).

  21. Is that "How the Other Half Lives?" That's a good study from the period in question. "Inside Greenwich Village, 1898-1918" by Gerald W. McFarland is good, too. It doesn't focus on the artists and progressives as much as on everyone living there.

    My guy goes to Antarctica.

  22. At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side, 1880-1920 (Arthur Kurzweil Books)
    by Lawrence J Epstein
    Definitely more "other side".

    It's a true story so the "facts" need to actually be Facts. Unfortunately not much is really known about his life back then but he travels into the heart of the Russian Revolution to rescue his family.
    So it's a crapload of history to learn.
    What's kewl is that I have the actually addresses he lived at from census reports. They're still tenements.

    Antarctica you say? Hmm, methinks there might be a skosh of tension in there.

  23. Naw, it's just a pleasure cruise to look at penguins and play soccer on pack ice. Yours sounds pretty groovy, though.

  24. Naw, it's just a pleasure cruise to look at penguins and play soccer on pack ice.

    And then weather grew rough. "It's a Southestana'" said the grizzled old deck hand. "We done fer sure."
    But they continued their soccer match despite the worsening elements, first wet sleet that stuck to their beards, then side-slashing snow which lifted their ball into the air and cast it into the quickly freezing sea. The penguins dove for the cover of the frothing mass of icy water.
    "Damn this tension," spoke the Captain, "our faint-hearted ladies cannot endure such conflict!"


  25. There's tension, but it's not at the page level.

  26. :)
    Actually I've read stuff like I just wrote and it can be horrid when overdone.
    Sounds like a fun expedition.

  27. Yeah, mine's not about the adventure at all, such as it is. Mine's more about identity and ideas of what "home" means and some stuff about community as well. There will be some big events, but they are few and far between and I could write the book without them, but they're cool set pieces so I'm keeping them. The penguin soccer teams will be great.

  28. @Scott - hah No, just a stupid place-holder comment so I could finally get the e-mail updates until I had a chance to actually say something.

    You've got a lot of great ideas in there.

    I just wish more people were taught, "Write what you know" the way I was. I won't belabor it since I blogged on it, but when I was taught WWYK it was (a) intended mostly for beginners and writers who were feeling stumped, and (b)did not have the strong implication that it so often does anymore that "what you know" includes only "what you have personally and directly experienced."

  29. Where we can get in trouble with writing from our personal experiences is that there will still be people out there who say we are wrong. Not everyone experiences sorrow the same way, just like not everybody thinks the same jokes are funny.

    I've become a big fan of comments on Goodreads for this very reason. I love reading opposite opinions from mine to see what that reader saw that I didn't. It's a sick kind of fun, I guess.


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