A few weeks ago, acclaimed author Anthony Horowitz was warned against writing a black character in his new book. The reason? Because it would be too inappropriate for a white writer to write from a black person’s perspective, since a white person can never experience what it’s like to be a black person.
On a similar note, Bailey’s Award Winning Writer Lisa McInerney was told during one of her classes that her book, The Glorious Heresies, should have used simplistic language because of its working-class roots: “a working-class story should be told through simple prose and working-class characters should have a limited vocabulary, or else they are not authentic.”
In both cases, these acclaimed writers were warned against writing outside the realms of their experience – or, in the case of McInerney, encouraged to appeal to the wide spread ‘common knowledge’ about a subject, I.E. the working class, to make a story more authentic.
Regardless of what they wanted to write – whether they wanted a black character, or eloquent prose, in their novels – both writers were given an arguably misguided piece of advice: Write what you know.
Which begs the question: Is telling an author to write what they know a way of censoring them?
DON’T WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
There is an article by Bret Anthony Johnston for the Atlantic titled Don’t Write What You Know. It’s, well, about exactly what you think it is.
It’s a fantastic article, one which I recommend reading if you have a spare moment, but in summary he argues that the emotional integrity of a story transcends the literal truth.
By telling an author to write what they know, you are placing a limitation on their imagination. You are building a box of facts around them which they must work within – you are making them worry about what others may think, rather than keeping their creative focus on the story and how to tell it.
In some cases, by telling an author to write what they know, the author can place themselves above the narrative. You give support to the argument: “You can’t tell me that my story is bad, or that it wouldn’t happen like that, because I was there, and it did happen like that, so I would know!”
Yes, you might have been there. Yes, that might be how it went down. But in fiction, you won’t be there to explain that to your reader; in fiction, narrative is king. And if the events of your story don’t make sense narratively – if they just happen as they happened in real life, with no foreshadowing, consequence, or emotional impact beyond yourself – then as a reader, I have a right to criticise it.
But still, the argument goes on:
“You weren’t there, you can’t write it.”
“If you can’t experience it, maybe write something else.”
“You’re not a black person, so it’s a bad idea for you to try to write one.”
“This isn’t how a working class person is supposed to talk.”
Is this the true aim of “Write what you know?”
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: INTERPRETATIONS.
Everything can be interpreted in writing. Even writing advice.
Some of the most well-known pieces of writing advice, from the practical “write everyday” to the abstract “be persistent” can, and have, been interpreted by writers in different ways for years. For instance, I personally choose not to write everyday, while a writer like Stephen King is compelled to.
And there’s a reason for that: Writers are people. And when it comes down to it, all advice is given to help people overcome their individual difficulties. I don’t have bestsellers to write, but King does – King doesn’t have a pet tortoise and an existential crisis (as far as we know), but I do.
Writers are different, from the unpublished to the bestselling, so the way in which we interpret advice will be different too.
So, how does this relating to writing what you know?
Because the phrase “write what you know” can be interpreted a huge number of ways. It can depend on who is giving the advice, who is receiving it and, most notably, why they are giving it.
Here’s just a few examples of what ‘Write What You Know’ could mean:
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW…ONCE YOU KNOW IT.
Like Zoe Heller learned in this article, a scene can become more engaging once you know more about it. And not just in the sense of research, fact-checking and personal experience. If you write a car chase, for example, you need to consider more than just the cars.
Are there pedestrians in the road?
How fast are the cars actually moving?
Could you really stand on top of a car and do ninja moves?
And if you can, what does that feel like? To feel the wind in your hair? The adrenaline?
Alongside research and fact checking, imagining and immersing yourself into a scene – actually choosing to know what exactly you are writing – can bring a breath of life to a stale piece of writing.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW…THE STANISLAVSKI APPROACH
Let’s say the scene isn’t a car chase. It’s a quiet, sombre moment. A character death, or perhaps a bitter farewell. Sure, you can google what grief feels like until the cows come home, but no explanation of how sadness works is going to brighten your prose.
Although you may never have experienced the scene at hand, you can draw upon your own experience to know the scene.
What did it feel like, when you saw a character die in your favourite T.V. Show?
What did you feel when you got the wrong answer on that test?
Drawing from these past experiences into your words can add an extra spice to the language. That is not to say that you need to have experienced every emotion under the sun to be a good writer – instead, take time to look at your emotions and your scene hand in hand. Use what you emotionally know to fuel your words.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW…AND USE IT AS A SCAFFOLD.
We’ve all been there. Your brain has reached an end. You want to write. You know you do. But what? What!?
Falling back on writing what you know can be a good exercise in getting out of this rut. Take a moment to think back on a moment in your life – or a moment in someone else’s life – and ask ‘What if?’ Of course you know what happened, but what if it didn’t go the way destiny planned? What would that mean for you? Or the world around you?
Using your knowledge as a scaffolding for your imagination can help create engaging, thought-provoking narratives. Taking a snippet of knowledge or experience and turning it into a world all its own.
Speculative Fiction is a genre that is fantastic at doing this. You only need to read a book like Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie to see the power of writing what you know, and then turning it on its head.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW…UNTIL YOU DON’T NEED TO.
Many a tutor falls upon “Write what you know” with a class of beginners. Why? Two reasons.
- Because it is easy to recall our own experiences rather than imagine new ones.
- And because people like to talk about themselves.
Not in an arrogant way (although those kinds of people do exist), but in an almost therapeutic way. We want to share our stories with others. We want to show people that our lives matter. There is always a small voice inside of writers that wants to be noticed and, for a beginners class, writing what you know is an opportunity to let that voice scream.
The security of your own experience provides a comfortable safety net for people who have not done any Creative Writing before. Of course, this mentality should not stick around – but it can be a good starting point for building the writing mind. A platform that starts with “Write what I know” and extends into “Write what I want to know.”
There is an argument, perhaps, that genuine human experience can help improve writing. But what Horowitz and McInerney experienced was not this.
“The only people who can accurately represent ethnic minorities are people from that minority.”
“The only people who can accurately represent the working class are people from that part of society.”
Taking “write what you know” to this extreme not only limits imagination, but also empathy and tolerance to representation. After all, if I will never be a black person, what is the point in learning about them? In addition, by encouraging writers to appeal to ‘common knowledge’ is to encourage laziness: after all, we all know that the working class don’t speak properly, right?
If we all stuck to what we knew, where would the groundbreaking narratives come from? How could the curious, creative mind ever hope to flourish if it’s limited by personal experience and knowledge? How can you encourage a writer to learn more about a subject if you convince them they will never truly know.
So, the next time you hear the advice “write what you know,” think about what that means to you, personally, as a writer.
And if you choose to give that advice, think about why you are giving it. Are you doing it to help the author? To improve their writing? To make it shine?
Or are you doing it to keep them in their box?
Do you think telling an author to write what they know is a way of censoring them? Perhaps you’ve been given that advice too? Leave a comment below or let me know @ERHollands. I want to know what you think!