Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What Do I Know?

I'm always waiting for things to be over so I can get home and commit them to paper.
~Erica Jong

"Write about what you know."

It's the advice every young writer hears at some point, the advice that many follow, the advice that many disregard.  I've struggled with it, to be honest.  I like the idea of writing what I know, writing from experience, writing from life.  But what, exactly, is the definition of "writing what you know"?  Does "writing what you know" mean that every piece of fiction has to be autobiographical, that each and every character must be based on someone of your acquaintance, that every scrap of dialogue must be at least paraphrased from something that really took place?

I think not.

One of my favorite scenes in Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel depicts Anne and Gilbert discussing Anne's literary endeavors.  Anne laments that her beloved story has become nothing more than a baking advertisement, and melodramatically announces that she will never write again.

Gilbert tries to offer some advice. "Oh, I wouldn't give up all together. Maybe if you just let your characters speak everyday English, instead of all that highfalutin mumbo-jumbo... "Wilt thou give up thy garter, oh fairest of the fair"? Anne, nobody speaks that way. And look at that sap Percival who sits around mooning the entire time. He never lets a girl get a word in edgewise. In real life she'd have pitched him. Well, if you want my opinion, Miss Shirley, I'd write about places I knew something of and people that spoke everyday English instead of these silly schoolgirl romances."

Anne ends up following Gilbert's advice and writes a book entitled Avonlea Vignettes, a fictionalized account of events in her hometown.   Jo March in Little Women does something similar-- after betraying her own conscience by writing sensational stories for a trashy newspaper, she turns her attention to something better and writes a semi-autobiographical novel about herself and her sisters.  With this kind of example before me, I started to wonder if maybe that was the only way to begin writing--to write solely about one's own experiences.  So I tried my hand at it, fictionalizing a few things here and there but attempting to recreate scenes in my own life in a novel for girls.

It flopped.

Since then, I've read quite a few books (and blogs :D) about writing, and I've come to the conclusion that every writer should write about what they know... because it's impossible to do otherwise.

Think about it for a moment.  The Preacher says in Ecclesiastes, "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Is it truly possible for any writer to write about things they don't know?  No.  It's not.  Every single character you create, every scenario you envision, every scrap of dialogue you craft has its foundation in something you've experienced in your life... or something you've imagined.  And the things that you imagine unquestionably fit into the category of "what you know"--because what other human being can know the workings of your mind better than yourself?

I'm not a psychologist, nor am I a professional writer.  (I say professional because I don't like to say "I am not a writer."  To say that I am not yet a writer simply because I don't get paid for what I write is inaccurate.  Anyone who writes is a writer.  I think Ernest Hemingway said that at one point, that there is no such thing as an aspiring writer.  Either you are a writer or you aren't.  Profound, no?)  So don't take what I say as an excuse to go nuts, write something ridiculous and then blame me for it.  (Not that you would.)

In conclusion (because every good essay or article or blog post has to have an introduction, body and conclusion), yes, I agree with the maxim that you should write what you know.  Want to capture the beauty of a wild thunderstorm in August?  Go for it.  Want to twine words together to describe a woman you met at the supermarket?  Do it.  Want to quote verbatim a hilarious conversation you had with your siblings at the dinner table?  Get thee to thy notebook or keyboard, and for pity's sake share it with the rest of us, because a good laugh over something like that can never come amiss.

But don't try to make "what you know" into a box and squeeze your writing into it.  Because your writing will suffer from lack of oxygen.  Trust me on this one.

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