This morning I came across a terrific blog post by author Scott D. Southard, entitled “The Writing Rule I Hate.” I could have just re-blogged it, but I have a considerable amount to say on this topic myself, so I thought I would do my own post about it. (You haven’t heard me give writing advice in a long time–I’m still doing that “breaking the rules” thing, by and large–so I’m entitled).
The rule Scott hates, and which I also dislike, is one I’m sure you’ve heard: “Write what you know.” You’ve probably heard this advice. I sorely hope that you rejected it as the utter rubbish that it is.
In fact, a great deal of writing advice is rubbish–which is why I don’t try to give it that often–but this “rule” is especially fulsome. It’s a weak-minded, closed-universe way of instilling confidence and encouraging competence in younger writers, which itself isn’t a bad goal, but it’s profoundly limiting and ultimately counterproductive. Mr. Southard devotes a considerable part of his post to explaining why it’s limiting, and I won’t rehash it here. I just want to share some of my own experience, because, as a young writer, I used to believe in this rule.
When I started writing more or less seriously, in high school, someone–I forget who–told me to “write what you know.” Not only was that “advice” from on high, it seemed intuitively sound. Creating realism in a novel or story is a writer’s main task, and a writer who knows the world that he/she is depicting on the page will, naturally, be able to do a much better job of making it live than someone who doesn’t know jack sh*t about what they’re writing about.
When I was 18, therefore, I wrote a novel about a guy in high school. I was in high school in 1988 and the book, which had essentially no plot, was a “slice of life” story about (guess what?) a guy in high school in 1988. It’s called Jake’s 88, and I’ve been thinking of doing a revision of it, but it would certainly not resemble at all its first incarnation. As I first wrote it, it had no plot, no conflict, and no point. I had taken “write what you know” absolutely literally. I learned a lot writing that book, but I didn’t have a readable book at the end of it. Cut me some slack. I was 18.
Later, when I was in college, I wrote another novel. Guess what it was about? A guy in college. Guess how good it was? It sucked. It was boring. It was a very realistic depiction of what it was like to be in college in 1991, but watching paint dry would have been a more enjoyable experience than actually reading it. Oh, did I mention that it was 200,000 words long? I certainly “wrote what I knew.” A lot of it.
Indeed, I wasted a good number of years trying to “write what I knew.” In fact I had it in my head that If I didn’t “write what I knew,” my writing would seem obviously forced and fake. I really wish whoever had told me to “write what you know” hadn’t cursed me with this horrible rule. I could have saved about 15 years and might have published Zombies of Byzantium when I was 25 instead of when I was 40.
Eventually I started to recover. Later in my writing career, amongst the wreckage of my unfinished projects, is a book idea that actually wasn’t half-bad. It’s called Chileheads, and it’s about people who are addicted to, and in fact obsessed with, spicy foods. An unlikely romance between two chileheads–both of whom are unhappily married to people who can’t tolerate spicy food–is the book’s main plot, but I also wrote a subplot where one of the characters, Noah, is a budding writer trying to write a novel. He gets it in his head that he wants to write a novel called The Pillbox which is about a group of German soldiers trapped in a concrete bunker on the coast of Normandy during the D-Day invasion. The soldiers get picked off one by one in the most horrible ways imaginable, sort of an “And Then There Were None” type of plot. In the story, by the way, Noah is in his mid-20s and works at a technology firm in the mid-2000s.
Then Noah, seeking inspiration, reads a writing textbook and encounters the unfortunate advice, “write what you know.” He goes to the bookstore and the next book he happens to pick up is a thinly-veiled memoir called Cry of the Howler Monkey, by a feminist author who was an expatriate in Africa in the early 1970s, survived a bloody civil war and fell in love with the wife of one of the African nation’s rebel faction leaders. The feminist author, who won the Pushcart Prize for Cry of the Howler Monkey, now teaches creative writing at NYU. [This is totally fictional, by the way]. Realizing his life is not nearly as interesting as the author’s, Noah junks his idea for The Pillbox entirely and sinks into a depression which can only be ameliorated by eating raw habanero peppers.
This black-comedy subplot was a deliberate dig at the “write what you know” advice.
Not everybody “knows” stuff that’s going to win them the Pushcart Prize. Margaret Mitchell did not live in the South during the Civil War. If she had heeded this advice, Gone With The Wind would never have been written. Similarly, Lew Wallace didn’t live in ancient Rome or meet Christ. I guess Ben-Hur was utterly worthless, then. I have never been to 8th century Byzantium or been a spy in Nazi-held Europe. So I suppose Zombies of Byzantium and The Armored Satchel are examples of a big-ego writer “not writing what he knows.” Shame on me.
Don’t write what you know. Write whatever the hell you like. Write what you’re passionate about. And if anyone ever tells you to “write what you know,” tell them they don’t know anything about writing.