Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Writing What You Know

Lately, it seems like everybody’s been taking potshots at the old writing adage of, “Write what you know.”

“It’s so limiting,” the dispensers of internet advice all say. “If you only write what you know, you’ll be stuck in a rut. I only write what I imagine.”

And while I know they mean well (most of them) I can’t help feeling like, one, they’re being arrogant, and two, they’re blind. At the very least, they’re misinterpreting the statement a literal one, ie, only write about the facts you know or about things that resemble your real life, which is not – I’ll repeat is not – what the damn saying means.

Let me be clear here: “Write what you know” does not mean that only lawyers can write courtroom dramas, or that only people who have been in love can write romances. It does not mean that you can only write about something once you’ve researched it exhaustively or studied it in college. And it does not mean that writing up your life as a poorly-disguised memoir is a good idea, because it’s not.

When people say “Write what you know,” what they mean is, “Write from the heart.”

When you write what you know, you take something of yourself – whether that be a character’s habit or favorite food, a passion for a certain time in history, a location that’s important to you, or a theme that’s reflective of your own life – and put it into your writing. It can be subtle or blatant, or all-consuming. It can be recurring, or a one-time thing.

One way or another, that bit of yourself is a connection between you and your work, and between you and your reader. Writing what you know, what comes from your heart, is what makes the story endearing and lasting.

J.K. Rowling has said that death of Harry Potter’s parents – and arguably, the series itself – was inspired by the death of her mother. Try to imagine Harry Potter without the themes of death, of preserving through loss, of the connection between the living and the dead. Even if you can do it, the series would be at a loss. Book 7 would be out of the question. The Deathly Hallows, the Horcuxes, the ultimate difference between Harry and Voldemort – all of it, arguably, stems from that seed of what Rowling knew.

Yes, imagination is a wonderful thing, and yes, you can’t write fiction without it; but if you believe that’s the only place your ideas come from, then you’re either very ignorant about yourself, or your writing is missing that vital connection.

Imagination cannot stand on its own. It’s flimsy, and it isn’t real. Writing needs a hint of yourself – of what you know, of your reality – or it’s nothing more than words on a page.