Write what you… no.

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.

Memoirs of a Quiet Life

A writer friend of mine is currently working on a memoir. While swapping writerly news with her in a cafe one afternoon this week, it briefly crossed my mind what it would be like if I tried to write my own memoir.

Answer: probably not that great. The truth is, my life is quite boring. Okay, so I make that claim, and then when I start dissecting it I find it’s not completely true – I’ve had some experiences which aren’t entirely commonplace. I’ve written questions for the Weakest Link. I’ve been to an inner-city comp followed by Oxford. I moved to America three weeks after passing my driving test. But while I expect I could cobble together an autobiography if I absolutely had to, I haven’t had an experience I’d describe as truly memoir-worthy. No epic journey of self-exploration through the wilderness a la Cheryl Strayed (author of ‘Wild’). No tragic past to overcome like Dave Pelzer (author of ‘A Child Called It’). It’s all just been… a bunch of stuff that’s happened. And I’ve bumbled my way through. Which is fine – after all, experiences which are good to read about and experiences which are good to live through are not the same thing. It just means I don’t have rich seam of real-life story-gold to mine, so I have to make stuff up instead.

A question I actually only rarely get asked – probably one of the perks of writing fantasy – is if I’ve ever plundered my own life for writing material. The answer is no, not really – I’ve not even been particularly tempted to insert caricatures of people I know into my work. There have been times when I’ve tried to put aspects of myself into my writing, but I’ve never found the resulting stories very successful. They end up feeling forced, somehow less honest than the stuff I’ve invented out of whole cloth, and I’ve found writing them uncomfortable.

It seems to write about yourself well you need to achieve a level of critical distance on your own experiences that I simply haven’t managed to reach, and perhaps I never will. Maybe that’s nothing to worry about. After all, one of the inherent limitations of memoir as a genre is that you’ve only got so much material available. I’m currently reading Caitlin Moran’s novel ‘How to Build a Girl’, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s deja vu-inducingly close – even in title – to her memoir ‘How to Be a Woman’, and she’s also used her own early life as the basis for the sitcom ‘Raised By Wolves’. Now I love Caitlin Moran, but I don’t think she can really keep recycling her eccentric upbringing indefinitely. The great thing about fantasy, in contrast, is that you can make up whatever you want, and keep making it up. I’ve already got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use, and I have more of the buggers every day. (having ideas is not the same, alas, as having written books).

In some ways, moreover, writing pure fiction can feel more revealing than writing memoir or confessional fiction, since you haven’t got anything to hide behind, no ‘but it really happened like that’ defence. You have to admit that everything just came out of your own head and yes your brain really is that weird. But then, if I was too concerned about people thinking I was weird, I wouldn’t have started down this route. Today, I have a nice quiet actual life, and plenty of time to spend with my inner life, filled with things both rich and strange. I might never get a memoir out of it, but I’m happy.