All writers are familiar with the adage “write what you know”. But what does it actually mean? Should it be taken literally? Or does it mean write with empathy, write from the heart, write from what you have experienced as well as from what you wish to experience?
This week’s blog posts excerpts from published articles on this topic by Bret Anthony Johnston in The Atlantic in 2011, and by Zoe Heller and Mohsin Hamid in the New York Times in March this year.
Bret Anthony Johnston:
“…fiction is an act of courage and humility, a protest against our mortality, and we, the authors, don’t matter. What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas, our egos and entitlements and flesh. Trust your powers of empathy and invention, I say. Trust the example of the authors you love to read—Flaubert: “Emma, c’est moi”—and trust that your craft, when braided with compassion, will produce stories that matter both to you and to readers you’ve never met.”
“I was in grade school when I first encountered the adage about writing what you know. It concluded my teacher’s tactful comments on a story I had written about an 18th-century highwayman. Stung by her tepid response, I rejected the advice out of hand. How ludicrous, I thought. How limiting! What about science fiction? What about fantasy? What about any writing that travels beyond the borders of the author’s sex or race or age?
Several decades on, the agony of my teacher’s criticism has somewhat abated, and I can see a little more of what she was driving at.
The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources. The problem with my highwayman story, it seems safe to say, was that I had drawn on none of them. It didn’t necessarily matter that I had never robbed a stagecoach. But it did matter that I had not troubled myself to find out, or even partially imagine, anything about what robbing a stagecoach might entail.
The other, subtler error I made — and continued to make for a long time afterward — was to suppose that translating experiential knowledge into fiction was a simple, straightforward, even banal business. For most writers, it actually takes a lot of hard work and many false starts before they are in a position to extract what is most valuable and interesting from their autobiographies.”
Mohsin Hamid suggests that: “It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.
Fiction comes into existence when these two strands are knitted together…
In my own writing, I am aware of combining both strands. When asked, I usually say I don’t do much research for my fiction, I just live my life. ..
But I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded. I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.
In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.”