17 January 2009

The Dubious Wisdom of “Writing What You Know”

Prompted by Gail Gauthier's remarks on Original Content, here's a round-up of online commentary from authors on a hoary bit of writing advice: "Write what you know."

Shannon Hale:

The most famous instance of this advice is in Anne of Green Gables. Anne writes fanciful romances and is rejected time and again. Then Gilbert advises her to write what she knows. (In the movie anyway--in the books, did anyone advise...this? I can't remember.) So she writes a book about a small town like her own with people a lot like her neighbors, and is published.

Hey, it worked for Anne. It could work for you too! As for me, I get bored easily. I'm not interested in writing my own life. I don't want to write about myself. I already live it, I'm already telling that story in a three-dimensional fashion. When I write, I want to experience something new.
Kelly McCullough:
However, the big problem with "write what you know" is that if we all did that, there'd be a ton of books about sitting in front of a computer typing, with occasional trips to the bathroom and grocery store, and some especially exciting entries on going to science fiction conventions.
Justine Larbalestier:
I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know--about mathematics, about being an athlete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile.
Gail Gauthier:
I realized in a blinding flash of light that writing what you know means writers have the option of turning to their lives for the details they need to describe characters and settings and to come up with plot points. That's dramatically different from having to write only about what has actually happened to you.
[ADDENDUM: Additional original content.]

It's notable that all four of these writers were working in the fantastic mode, to one extent or another.

I'm with the authors who prefer to write what we don't have first-hand experience with: life in a fantasy world, life in the eighteenth century, life apart from typing at a keyboard most of the day with occasional pauses for caffeine and paperwork. As a student, I wondered how to reconcile my real interests with writing what I knew. Especially if I wanted to interest anybody else, too.

Looking back, I think it's extremely valuable for writing students to "write what you know." Sorry, kids! Until you've developed your powers of observation and description by practicing against a tough opponent like your real world, you're not ready to tackle someone else's world.

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