Write What You Know is garbage advice.
The intention, near as I can tell, is to encourage us to mine our own experiences for their familiarity. In this, it is the writing equivalent of the Stanislavski method of acting. However, method acting is a productive choice because it provides the actor with a way to bridge his or her life to the material of a role. Writers, though, inevitably incorporate their emotional truths into our work whether we want to or not. Method writing is not a choice but a given, and for us to reinforce it consciously is an exercise in redundancy.
And this is me giving Write What You Know the benefit of the doubt. I hope the advice is not to direct us to draw only from our experience. That would be absurd, if only because the life of the average writer is boring. Narratives about navel-gazing writers do occasionally lead to transcendent art—Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” comes to mind—but more often than not, the result is solipsistic drivel.
If a story is a journey not only for the reader but also for the writer (and it is), why would we choose to tie our fabricated narrative to the humdrum existence of our own life?
I should note that I’m not talking about semi-autobiographical fiction. For example, The World According to Garp is a superb novel by a writer (John Irving) about a writer (the title character), but it sings well beyond its pages because Garp’s vocation is only one of its melodies. The World According to Garp, like most of Irving’s fiction, is a tragicomic symphony celebrating a quirky, WASPish American family. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is much more about Esther’s tenuous sanity than it is about her creative aspirations, and in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, the fact that David ends up becoming a writer may be the destination, but it is hardly the journey.
But I come here not to cast stones but to build a castle. Write What You Know may be inadequate and counterproductive, but how’s this: Write What You Want to Know.
What is something about the world that you are desperate to learn more about and why? What terrifies you and why? What delights you and why? The more passionate you are, the most curious you are, the more this passion and curiosity will bleed into your language and excite the reader. Think about when you were in school. Which teachers were the most memorable? Were they the ones who reiterated the material or were they the ones whose zealotry about their subject matter was so enthusiastic that it became contagious?
Contrary to my browser’s search history, I am not a criminal. That said, I am fascinated by what would motivate someone to transgress from societal norms, especially when the end result leads to the injury and/or death of innocents. It is so far removed from my own timid, bleeding heart personality. And so most of my writing output has been dedicated to my examination of the deviant mind. Nuclear Winter Wonderland pivots on the actions of a nihilist. While Galileo Preys and Before Cain Strikes are anchored by sociopaths. For the Xanadu Marx trilogy, I shifted focus from the deviancy of my antagonist to the deviancy of my protagonist and tried to peek inside the machinations of a self-destructive officer of the law. I sincerely believe that my need to understand transgression, to Write What I Wanted to Know, contributed to these novels’ critical and commercial success.
Although characters are the engines that make stories run, they are not the only facets of storytelling that a writer needs to master. Setting, when done right, is more than just window dressing for the action of the plot, and here as well, Write What You Want to Know can be an especially helpful beacon.
Take one of the most acclaimed historical novels of the 21st century, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. While it is Ms. Mantel’s fascination with enigmatic Thomas Cromwell which keeps us glued to her paragraphs, it is her equal fascination with the vicissitudes of Tudor England which reinvigorated mass cultural interest in the time period. Conversely, take one of the most acclaimed speculative novels of the 21st century: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. The power here resonates not only from Ms. Jemisin’s deeply memorable cast but also from her preconceptions about ecology and gender. Arguably, the world of the novel is as much a character as anyone in it.
Write What You Want to Know requires something extra for it to work at all, something which I have purposely avoided disclosing until now. If there is a caveat to be found, here it is. Write What You Want to Know requires research. Obvious? Perhaps. Vital to remember? Absolutely.
It’s not enough to sit down and spin a tale about a tight-rope walker because you’re acrophobic. Tight-rope walking is an art with a history and jargon of its own. To capture its verisimilitude and really sell the narrative, we must immerse ourselves in research. On the other hand, since we are Researching What We Want to Know, the research itself should be fun (provided we don’t tumble down too many rabbit-holes).
Write What You Want to Know is not for the lazy or timid. It requires long hours and vast imagination. When done poorly, it can come across as forced and fake and hacky but when done well, when done fully, it produces the kind of propulsive, addictive output that keeps us up into the wee hours with a sloppy grin on our faces.
When done right, Write What You Want to Know allows us to commune with our two halves, the analytical adult and the playful inner child, and produce something so much greater than the sum of our parts.
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)