“Write what you know!”, that’s the advice. That’s how we end up with a lot of the same characters, and they’re much like ourselves or people we know. “Write what you know” is scary – why would anyone want to read about my life? Disaffected youth – unless you’re an amazing writer or have an amazing twist, surely that’s just same/same, yeah? No, what I know is boring!
Henry James (in “The Art of Fiction“) wrote that “writing what you know” can be almost anything, as long as you’re “one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”. Even so, it feels like I’m writing something pretty imagined or untrue if my experience of a thing only extends as far as having seen it from a distance. For James, this is okay. But he, too, says that writing what you know is the way to go.
For a long time I did this – I wrote the same poem over and over, I wrote characters who were my age and in my relationships. Nothing differed very much – I spent a long time producing similar work. When I broke from this, I swung the other way – writing characters very unlike me, in situations which required a lot of research. Sometimes this worked; some of this stuff I’m proud of. Some of it is also just plain rubbish.
This semester, I have to pitch and submit an extract of “My Novel” (such an optimistic thing to call this nebulous being) for a university subject. I started to plan out a novel about a character I’ve had on the back-burner for some time. He’s a structural engineer who’s obsessed with the possibility that if his buildings aren’t sound, people could die. He’s a solid character, I do like him. He’s based loosely on someone I know (so this would count in James’ definition of “what I know”), and I am interested in writing him, eventually. However, in trying to start planning a novel about this guy, I realised it didn’t ring true. I was writing yet another story I wasn’t sure about, that was trying too hard to be NEW! I realised that by avoiding “What I know” in the strictest sense, of characters like myself or my immediate family, I’ve been denying some amazing material from my own life.
My family history is mostly a mystery to me. It’s a light that shines (dimly) only as far back as my grandparents on Mum’s side, and to my father on his side. Even within that limited space, I have the makings of a novel. It’s a matter of being comfortable with the fact that it warrants writing, and it will make a good story. Deep down I know it will, but I’ve been so afraid of being the stuck, clichéd writer who can only write what they know, that I’ve avoided it and gotten stuck in the other extreme.
I’ve talked to both my parents about writing our story, or some fictionalised semblance of it, and they’re both fine with that. What comes next, I suppose, is about the ethics of writing what you know. This question, I suspect, is much harder to answer.
On a panel called “Mining The Personal” at last year’s EWF, Benjamin Law talked about how he handed everyone in his family a red pen and a copy of his manuscript before it went anywhere. I think this is the most honest approach, and one I’ll certainly be following myself. But how do I wrangle the material in the first place?
What do you think about the ethics of writing (fictional or non-fictional) personal stories?
14/04/2011 at 5:56 pm
I think “write what you know” works most of the time because what you know is completely different from what I know. What seems like the same old same old to you is something fresh and unfamiliar to me.
And then the writing process happens, our imaginations take over, and what we know twists into something none of us know! Fun.
14/04/2011 at 6:02 pm
That’s pretty much what convinced me, Kay. My tutor’s quite different to me (about 60 years old, totally different lifestyle) and she said that she has no idea what it’s like to be me… It’s a good point. A lot of what I read and enjoy is different to my life but most likely true for someone out there, possibly its author.
But ah yes, the monster that is a story many many generations later – unrecognizable!
15/04/2011 at 4:40 am
Great post Sam.
I think we will project parts of ourselves into our writing no matter how hard we try not to. And even if you don’t the reader will be reading it and still think its an autobiographical piece. There is no such thing as fiction really!
15/04/2011 at 4:47 am
That’s a bit scary though, isn’t it? Because if I want to use parts of my family as a base for stuff, but some of it will be wildly fictional, the reader will still assume that it’s all true! That’s … dangerous?
Having said that, I do have this problem with poetry. I always assume the “I” is the poet, most poetry cuts out the narrator. So I end up (rightly or wrongly) lumping all this stuff on the poet. Poor poets.
22/04/2011 at 5:11 pm
I used to be dubious about the ‘write what you know’ advice as far as I thought it could be applied to ‘genre’ fiction for instance, and how it could work for a ‘young’ writer with narrow life experience etc, but I read a great quote from somewhere (wish I could recall where & who) but it had an mechanic who was looking to SF, asking about how to ‘write what I know, when I want to write a space opera etc but I don’t know much about spaceships?’ (of course)
And the response was something like, ‘well, you know about mechanics, right? So your character is the mechanic, and you know how mechanics act – and how important to a good story is the way a spaceship operates?’
Which I thought was a great way to look at it.
Great question, Sam. I still haven’t worked out how I feel about using personal details of others in fictional work. I like that red pen idea
22/04/2011 at 6:01 pm
I think a lot of it perhaps comes down to the skill of the writer. Does it matter what something’s based on if it touches you?
This came up in one of my classes the other day – if someone who’s had an affair writes a story about someone who’s had an affair, isn’t it better than the same story written by someone who hasn’t? …well, no. It depends what’s well written, and whether it speaks you or not.
Having said that, I do think that your own experience can be valid, perhaps it’s also a matter of being able to see outside your OWN experience and write that material or something based on it in a MEANINGFUL way…
(late-night-tired rant fin)
24/04/2011 at 8:28 pm
Yeah, I agree. You don’t always have to experience something personally to write well about it. One of the great strengths and gifts of Fiction itself, huh?