I’ve written here before about some of the bad advice writers often get given. Today, I’m going to talk in a little more depth about my least favourite piece of writing advice: ‘write what you know’. Which is, in my humble opinion, possibly the single worst thing you can say to an aspiring writer.
Why do I hate it so much?
I’m going to – ironically enough – answer that question by writing about what I know. When I was a young impressionable lass, trying to get started as a writer, I heard this little gem trotted out repeatedly by a bunch of people (who, in hindsight, didn’t really know what they were talking about). And I found it, quite simply, paralysing. Because I didn’t know anything. When you haven’t yet had the chance to accumulate much life experience or in-depth knowledge, being told to write what you know is the opposite of helpful. What I needed to hear instead was something along the lines of: write whatever comes into your head and have some fun with it.
It’s easy to say I should have disregarded this unhelpful advice and found my own path, and yet it was presented to me as such received wisdom that I largely internalised it, to the detriment of my inspiration and motivation. Even later on, once I had some experiences under my belt, I found writing things based on them difficult, and had little success. Partly, I think, it’s a personal thing: some people seem to thrive on more confessional forms of writing, while I just don’t.
While I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone who wants to from using their own life as a source of ideas for creative writing (hey, whatever works for you), I also think there are some broader problems with the ‘write what you know’ mantra. For instance, there’s this brutal question: is your life interesting enough that anyone else would want to read about it? Or are your experiences actually very similar to a lot of other people’s experiences (ie the ones they read books to escape from)? While some authors do have the skill to spin the frustrations of everyday life into fictional gold, many don’t. And even if you do have exciting and unique experiences to write about, there’s another problem: what do you do once you’ve written about them? What comes next? For instance, I loved Caitlin Moran’s memoir How to Be a Woman, but then found her novel How to Build a Girl disappointingly similar (even the title is almost the same!), and I note she hasn’t followed it up with more novels.
There’s also the issue of the nature of real life: it rarely falls into neat character arcs and plot resolutions. Real people and situations tend to be far more messy and self-contradictory than those in fiction. I personally struggled to turn one into the other, or to get enough distance on my own feelings to write about them convincingly. In my case, it was only when I finally abandoned any attempt to write anything based in any way on reality, and plunged instead into the realms of fantasy fiction, that I set my creativity free and I wrote some stories I feel proud of. My current novel, In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, features a cast of characters including: the captain of a sailing ship, a dragon, a transgender magician, a torturer, and a flying assassin. I have no idea what it’s like to be any of those things, but that doesn’t matter: I use my imagination. And, if need be, I do some research.
Which brings me round to how I think this zombie-like piece of writing ‘wisdom’ can be improved markedly: by flipping it. Instead of ‘write what you know’ try this: know what you write. Read extensively, soak up the world, keep an open mind, and if you don’t know something relevant to the tale you want to tell, find out. Most importantly, write what you know you want to write, not what you think you ought to write. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger.
Note: my little bundle of joy is due to arrive on the 12th of August, so I may not be updating this blog for a while, but I’ll be back as soon as I’ve mastered the skill of typing with one hand whilst feeding a baby with the other.