Sat 30 Jan 2010
“Write what you know.” I haven’t been to a lot of writers’ workshops or taken a lot (or any) courses on writing, but that is one piece of advice that I have heard plenty of times. “Write what you know” makes sense. You can best tap into your characters’ emotions and states of mind when you have felt something similar. I call on my experience playing American football when I write battle scenes. I try to visit all of the cities that I write about so that I can convey what if felt like to walk their streets for the first time. This is all well and good, but there is a danger in taking “write what you know” too far. Obviously, if you are writing a science-fiction book, you should not attempt to build a rocket and shoot yourself into space to get a feel for your subject matter. And time machines are (unfortunately) out of the question for writers of historical fiction. This seems obvious enough, but all too often writers of novels set in contemporary times take “write what you know” to mean they should write about themselves.
While living in Paris, I attended a writers’ workshop in the musty attic of a suitably atmospheric English-language bookstore. In the first meeting, when we went around the room to introduce what we were writing about, it sounded more like group therapy than authors sharing the plots of their novels. A twenty-something guy who bounced from relationship to relationship as he struggled to find himself was writing about a twenty-something with little direction in life, bouncing from relationship to relationship. A middle-aged man with fond memories of his trip to Cuba in the ’60s was writing about a young man in the ’60s who takes a trip to Cuba. A retired diplomat was writing about an aging diplomat. You get the idea.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with semi-autobiographical novels, but writing them does run the risk of degenerating into a sort of literary masturbation. The problem is that most people’s lives are simply not interesting, at least not to anyone other than themselves. Would I want to read the fictional version of my life? Um, no. Not unless it was written by Richard Russo, Graham Swift, or the like. A great writer—one with cutting insight into human nature and an ability to breath life into characters so that they seem more real than the people we pass on the streets—can make just about any story into a thing of beauty. Books like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy or Russo’s Bridge of Sighs are great examples. The plots of these books are not particularly interesting. What makes them great is the writing, the authors’ ability paint settings in vivid colors and to bring characters to life. For authors like Roy and Russo, plot is a secondary consideration. I think I would happily read a grocery list written by Arundhati Roy.
Unfortunately, most of us (and I definitely include myself in this category) are not great writers. We may be competent, skilled, even highly talented, but very few of us are so great that we can get by on only the beauty of our prose. If our writing is not enough, then we need something else: we need great stories. And for most of us, that means that writing the fictionalized story of our life is not going to be good enough. The good news is that being a great storyteller is much easier than being a great writer. There are a million wonderful stories out there—historical epics, sci-fi adventures, period romances, corporate intrigues, family dramas. If you’re having trouble making one up on your own, then find a real world even that inspires you—like the fall of Constantinople—and write about that. Just remember this rule of thumb: you can almost always sum up a good story in one or two sentences. If you find yourself rambling on for half-an-hour when people ask what your novel is about, then you might have a problem.
Next week, I’ll write more about finding a great story. Until then, don’t forget that “write what you know” is not an invitation to literary masturbation. Use your experiences but don’t stick to them. After all, I didn’t have to be an Italian mercenary bent on revenge or a headstrong Byzantine princess devoted to saving her empire in order to write Siege… and thank God for that!