Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't fucking write what you know

I know it goes against all the advice on writing you've heard from the time you were a wee bairn, but try this: Don’t fucking write about what you know. What you know, unless you are like an astronaut or a former child soldier, is probably that not interesting to observers. Really. Your kids are cute, but not that interesting. Your husband is dull as shit. Your opinions on politics are better expressed by writers for Politico or the Wall Street Journal (just kidding).

You’ve never done anything. You’ve never saved a kid from a well. You sit around thinking about how you can finagle riches and widespread admiration out of devoting a couple hours a month to your stupid blog (I don’t do that, but I bet you do.) The most wrenching decision you make most days is whether to douse sriracha or sambal oelek on your noodles (that wasn’t intended as a sexual reference, I guess.)

No one gives a shit about any of this. No one wants to hear it. It sucks, because if you’re a writer you probably don’t have an exciting life. There are a few exceptions, like Iceberg Slim and Rue McLanahan. But the rest of us have dull lives because we just sit around and write, and writing about that kind of sedentary lifestyle is limiting. So you’ve got two choices: you can be incredibly funny, witty, and talented and somehow make it interesting to talk about your ball-scratching husband and your kid who thinks cats lay eggs, or you can make interesting shit up.

I discourage you from the former choice. Chances are, you’re not witty and talented. If you actively think you’re witty and talented, chances are even slimmer. Wit and Talent are things  you just come across if you're fortunate, like finding USD750 in a shoe at the Goodwill*: they're not attributes you can count on happening, and it's best to plan for a life without them.

So, armed only with your talentlessness and lack of wit, and an inexplicable, perhaps detrimental desire to Be A Writer, your challenge is to create something that people will want to read. “People” doesn’t have to mean “most of the literate public” or “Michiko Kakutani” or “that guy I’ve been trying to fuck for five months now”; you will probably have to be satisfied with a few aspiring writers who only comment on your blog to get you to click on their blog. BUT. Here are your choices: you can describe the inner workings of your own head, which, we’ve already determined, are dull and fairly ordinary. OR you can set to wonderin’. “Hm. What if there’s this couple who are in love but disagree vehemently about the desirability of achieving technological singularity, which the female of the couple is working to bring about?” Or: “Camille Claudel spent the last 30 years of her life in a mental institution; what the hell did she do on a typical day? I’m going to make up a story about it.” Or: “What if there was this superhero with a really benign superpower, like an excellent sense of smell?”**

I find that little exercises like these limit me in a liberating way. You can still write about honest and familiar emotions, but you’re approaching these from a different perspective, an invented one. I’ve met many people who don’t like writing fiction because it is too open, too difficult to set parameters; but it’s fun when you invent your own parameters.

For a long time, I was like Quentin Tarantino in that all my characters were me. They all spoke the same, had the same drives, unless they were the Nemesis, in which case they were way too obvious, like, rapists and capitalists and shit. I had a breakthrough about 5 years ago, when I decided to write a story from the perspective of a small boy. At that point, it was one of the best things I’d written. I wrote a bunch more from a male’s POV. I wrote a couple of historical-ish pieces. I started a historical blog in the voice of an abhorrent upper-class woman. This involved research and some amount of hewing to the confines of actual events. When you know what your limits are, getting to an endpoint becomes like figuring out a puzzle; there may be several ways to solve it, but only one outcome, or at least a finite number of them (this is a good case for outlining one’s work, which I have never done in earnest). Trying to get outside of my own experiences - what I know -- was enormously eye-opening. My characters are all, of course, still me, in some tiny way, but they're disguised as people I've never met.

I don’t know much, so it doesn’t make sense to write what I know. Don't listen to advice. Or, do listen, but try to think about why it's wrong. All platitudes regarding writing are just platitudes anyway, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

_____
*Happened to my friend.
**All real-life examples of shit I'm writing.

4 comments:

  1. I could see a sense of smell being pretty useful in solving some sorts of crimes (e.g. pretty much anything involving guns, drugs, kidnappings, fugitives, poisonings, chemicals used by supervillains for science!, and food-tasting competitions gone horribly awry. Unfortunately, it probably wouldn't be very useful in street brawls, which constitute 99% of the average superhero's workday.


    (Well, I guess it would be very hard to surprise the character, unless the surprising character was a hunter that knew the difference between "downwind" and "upwind").

    ReplyDelete
  2. Soooo many possibilities! What if the supersmeller gets kidnapped by nefarious truffle farmers? (farmers? hunters? foragers? I don't know the correct term.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Like this article as a welcome antagonism of a well known approach. I intend to link to it in my latest blog post. Let me know if this isn't ok & I'll remove.

    Do think your point of view is a bit stunted though. You describe 'what you know' as 'what you do'. The two aren't the same.

    For example before a serial killer makes his first kill they may not have 'done' anything and led a 'dull' life as you describe. But the process of mental breakdown which would lead to that point of depravity would be 'known' and interesting, if a little horrific, to read.

    Personally I believe in a middle ground. Using what you 'know' and a bit of dull what you 'do' to ground an imaginative story. I think people like to relate to their characters to an extent. Writing about someone who's been locked up for 30 years isn't something most people can relate to.

    Will keep an eye on this blog in future.
    www.andrewjknight.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your comments, Andrew, and you are certainly welcome to link to this blog. I think the "write what you know" adage as it is taught to and/or interpreted by beginning writers frequently does mean "write about familiar experiences." My purpose in writing this post was to offer a challenge to writers to go further than they are used to, to write outside of their experience; I think many novice writers can be apprehensive about this approach (I certainly was). I addressed above how one can write about unfamiliar experiences from an emotionally familiar place. I certainly don't mean that this should be the ONLY way to write; this is just one way to approach it, and worth a try.

    Regarding your statement about relatable characters: there is a whole spectrum of relatability in characters, but a capable writer can make a character somewhat relatable regardless of his/her similarity to the reader. Most people can't relate to being a Danish prince or an orphaned wizard, yet people manage to identify with these characters.

    ReplyDelete