Write what you know, or what you love? - Mari Biella

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, some of it very
Authors Electric Mari Biella
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?

          “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 war zones. 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?

The shape of things to come?

          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.


JO said…
Write what you love, and if there are things you don't know - then find them out!!
Nick Green said…
Like most soundbite advice ('show, don't tell' is another), it's a useful rule of thumb to set beginners on the right road, but once you understand WHY it's important, you can find plenty of ways around it.

Tolkien's an interesting case in point. In The Silmarillion he was writing what he knew - total, hopeless, all-out cataclysmic war - mixed with another thing he knew - ancient languages - mixed with another thing he knew, Finnish mythology. But when they were mixed, they were something no-one had ever seen before.
Chris Longmuir said…
If all authors went along with write what you know we wouldn't have fantasy or sci-fi. Dracula would never have hit the written page, and neither would Bilbo Baggins. I'm inclined to take the broader view of 'write what you know' to include research. If you research something thoroughly it could be said you know it, although that doesn't really explain Dracula or Bilbo Baggins!
Lydia Bennet said…
well said all, I've never subscribed to this view as such otoh I do meticulous research for my books and historical plays. I suppose it comes down to this - write what you know, or make stuff up, or mix what you know to make something new, (thank you Nick) BUT not a good idea to write about something lots of readers know about, and you know nothing about. The story and the world you create have to be credible within that context, so writing from the POV of a doctor, or mountain climber, without knowing anything about what they do so there are howlers galore, will struggle to win readers.
Bill Kirton said…
As usual, I come late to a blog and just agree with what others have said. I'd just add that making yourself do something about which you know nothing is at least as valuable as reading about it and probably more so. Along with traditional (book and internet) research for my novel The Figurehead, I took up woodcarving to feel what creating a figurehead was like. I also signed on as a paying crew member for a passage from Oslo to Leith on the beautiful Christian Radich. Both experiences gave me insights I could never have got second hand.
Kathleen Jones said…
Write what you love! You can get to know almost anything and imagination fills in the gaps - but you can't write without passion.
Lovely post Mari.
Nick Green said…
It's worth adding: trying a new experience can be a great kick-start to new ideas for stories. You're seeing everything for the first time, so you notice details which an old hand might ignore or take for granted.

To put it another way: most of us would have a hard time writing an interesting story about catching a train into London. But a visiting tribesman from Papua New Guinea would be able to tell a mesmerising tale about exactly the same experience, even if - ESPECIALLY if - he'd only done it once.
Susan Price said…
I think all the advice here is spot-on - how could it be otherwise, given the writers - but I'm am particuarly taken by Bill and Nick's. I think most creative people would agree that we should keep on learning things. (Though as someone who recently took an Advanced Driving Course and an RLF Consultancy course at the same time, while also trying to learn something about Systemic Functional Linguistics, I'd say, try to keep it to one thing at a time if you don't want scrambled brains.)

I think 'write about what you know' is the most limiting and deadening advice possible if it's taken literally, which it often is.

It should be reworded as: Make up whatever you like, but GROUND it in what you know. Which, as Nick points out, is what Tolkein was doing. It's what Martin is doing in 'Game of Thrones,' and what Herbert was doing when he wrote 'Dune.'
Mari Biella said…
Thanks, all. Your comments all chime pretty closely with my own intuitive feelings, which is encouraging!
Coming late to the picnic, but I agree with everyone, including Mari in the original thought-provoking post. I used to tell Creative Writing students that 'write what you know' was OK, as long as they remembered that they knew a lot more than they thought! I get impatient with all this overly prescriptive writing advice though. Do this, don't do that. And so often you find it's being given by somebody with the writing experience of a gnat. I've judged play competitions where all the writers seemed determined to write what they knew, so they set everything around a kitchen table or in an office.
Dennis Hamley said…
I too have very late come to Mari's fascinating and the wonderful conversation it has fostered. We were out yesterday. We caught a train to Bournemouth, walked on the beach, had a paddle went to the Russell-Cotes museum - wonderful: a sort of tiny Taj Mahal - had F and C in Harry Ramsdens's and them came home. There, I've written what I know but reckon I could fashion a good story out of it. But Robert Swindells, for his Carnegie-winning Stone Cold, which was about homelessness, actually went to London and lived in cardboard boxes and shop doorways for two weeks. A stunningly good novel came out of it. Would we go to those lengths? I've called on my own direct experience sometimes. Don't we all? But we don't present it straight. Our own experience is all we really have: our imaginative leaps out of it may be prodigious but the nugget at the heart is ours and ours alone.

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