Write What You Know, Yes Or No?
Ah, yes, that old chestnut.
“Write what you know.”
A bit vague, innit?
Do we even know what it means? Is it suggesting that we should only write the things we ourselves have experienced? Perhaps it’s saying to write only those things we know in our hearts. Then again, it could be a direction to do your research: what you know is what you learn, and you learn best from sitting down and doing your homework.
What I do know is that this old writer’s commandment has been trotted out time and time again. Long has the writer been dragged to this old tablet. Long has someone pointed a waggling finger at it, silently saying, “This. This is one of the commandments.” If we do not accept it, then our nose is shoved in it — or, rather, across it, the tip of the writer’s sniffer dragged across the peaks and valleys of cracked stone as it inhales the worldly and archaic dust of a rather antediluvian piece of advice.
The big question is: is it even good advice?
Space Unicorns, Dragon Uncles, And A Parallel Dimension In My Underpants
Turns out, when you think about it, the list of Things I Cannot Actually Know is pretty fucking long. I can’t know what it’s like to be a soldier in the Iraq War. I definitely can’t know what it’s like to be a soldier in World War I, or the Peloponnesian Wars, or the Thog Clan Wars battling over the Yellow Monkey Forest. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Samurai, a Renaissance artist, an Islamic scholar, a Latvian prostitute, or Charles Darwin. (…Okay, I maybe know a little something about being a Latvian prostitute, but that was a dark time in my life, man, a dark time.) I damn sure can’t know the things that lurk purely in the realm of imagination — I have never ridden a space unicorn, my uncle is not an ancient dragon, and I have not yet discovered an alternate dimension in my boxer shorts no matter how hard I look.
So, according to the Advisory Nugget in question, those things are all off the table, right? Cleaving to the advice closely leaves me little room for all that nonsense.
Except, that’s obviously a dumptruck heaped with bullshit. Authors have told excellent stories based on subjects they cannot know. Robert Heinlein never went into space. Robert McCammon never endured a nuclear apocalypse. Dante didn’t actually wander into Hell. Those guys who wrote the Bible didn’t actually see Jesus fight the Balrog. (That’s in the Bible, right? It’s been a while. I’m pretty sure it’s in there. He’s all like, “Thou Shalt Not Pass, My Son!”) Never seen a School of Wizards. Never met a glittery vampire. Never personally fought a Vatican conspiracy, or an Evil Sewer Clown, or The Riddler.
Ta-da! Advice, disproved! That was easy. It’s party time! Pants off, everybody! My robot butler will be around in just a moment with a tray of cocktails and lube. The boombox is booming. Let’s kick these jams.
Wait. Wuzza? We’re not done here?
So the robot butler has to…?
*programs the robot butler to head back inside with the lubricant and alcohol*
Fine. Let’s keep talking about it.
So, Wait, Is The Advice Bullshit Or Not?
The advice is not bullshit.
*waits for the gasps from the audience to subside*
No, seriously. It’s actually damn good advice. That old chestnut, that archaic commandment, it’s with us for a reason. The Dude Abides, and that advice endures.
But people have been misconstruing that shit for a long, long time. The advice is ambiguous, but it needs to be. It has an unmoored definition, one that floats this way and that, often just out of grasp. It applies differently to different projects. You need to find the proper definition that fits the story you’re telling.
What are the factors?
The Writer Must Learn To Live Life
That’s number one. Writers, as noted on the Oscars last night, have a penchant for turning into “sickly little mole people.” You know it, and I know it. We hunker down in our hovels, our darkened offices, our moistened caves, and we slowly go blind by the stark glow of a computer monitor as we bang out story after story, write tweet after tweet, and watch one gonzo cat video after another. “I can haz clay and fungus for dinner?” one writer asks the scarecrow he’s made out of plastic Target bags stuffed with the crumpled-up manuscripts of months past. Then he uses his quivering star-shaped nose to search out a cockroach that has unwisely ventured into the room.
Experiences mean something. If the sum of our experiences are, say, our Work-In-Progress, our Facebook pages, our video games, our movies, our Other People’s Books, then we don’t know jack shit. Is that you? Do you fit that definition? Take a good, long look. You might either want to start leaving the house more often or decide that this isn’t the career for you. If that’s the summation of your “life experience,” then I assure you, your work will be pale and sad, as sickly as the mole person you are. Further, it will be derivative. Because all you know is other people’s work. You’re bringing nothing of your own to the table.
That means, get out of the house. I’m not saying you have to leave a life of adventure. You don’t have to fight lions or race snowmobiles or join up as a sniper in some Burmese drug lord’s army. But seriously, go do some shit. Go to the park. Listen to the way people talk. Head to the zoo and watch the animals. At the grocery store, marvel at the colors, the sounds, the smells. Get on a roller coaster. Hit up a flea market. Drive to a nearby town, one you’ve never been to, and just take some fucking notes.
Get away from the computer. Put down that video game. Exit your cave.
And, yes, once in awhile, attempt to have an actual adventure. Go on a vacation. Flee the safety of your firelight and your comfort zone. Hell, we went to Hawaii, which was equally out of my comfort zone and squat in the center of it. It was outside the zone because travel makes me anxious, because I don’t like the beach, because I’m mildly hydrophobic, because it’s a place I’ve never been. It was inside the zone because, fuck, it’s Hawaii. But even still, I was able to take away so much. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the warm air, the weirdness of the culture, the way that you’ll pass a really nice house and it sits next to a ramshackle tin shed that somebody calls home, the way that lava has burned over whole towns but left a few patches of grass and even a few houses standing. Before I went to Hawaii, if I had attempted to write about Hawaii, it would’ve been all wrong. I had the wrong impression. Now that I’ve been there? I can write about it. No, not the same way that someone who lives there could write about it. But dangit, it’s a start.
(By the way, this is an issue that has gone back quite a ways. Chaucer — himself a character in his own Canterbury Tales — had self-deprecating concerns over the writer’s life versus the experiences of others. Truth is, Chaucer had a pretty interesting life, but this was still a fear of his. That, though, is a post for another time.)
Every Apple Has Its Core
Your story has a core. A seed. An essence. That’s sounds like some hippy-dippy stuff, but it’s true. Every tale has a center. A beating heart. It has that thing you’re trying to say. Find the core. Find the thing that will give your story the energy it needs, the feel you want, the driving authenticity that will elevate the narrative.
We’ll talk a little more about authenticity below.
For now, what I’m urging you to do is to pair your life experiences with the core of your narrative.
No, you cannot live the relationship between a samurai and his daimyo. But you can know it. What was your relationship with your father like? Your mother? Your boss? Draw from one or all of those. Find the emotional core. Find the authenticity.
No, you will never live on a mining base on the made-up planet of Cockspore Seven. But you can know the people there. You can know the experience. My family comes from a line of coal miners. Further, I can go visit the towns that are still mining towns. My grandfather died of black lung. Hell, those towns have their own language, the “coal cracker” slang (dictionary here, if you don’t believe me). To find the authenticity, I’m both drawing from my own family and my own life and further doing a little “get out of my cave” research. I’d drive to the town. I’d spend a day. I’d take copious notes. I’d get out of my comfort zone and actually talk to somebody — and trust me, I do not like talking to people. People are weird. They might have knives. And Chloroform. Hell, I do. So why wouldn’t they?
No, I’ve never killed a man with a proton rifle. But I’ve killed animals with one of your so-called “Earth weapons.” I remember the stink of gunpowder. I remember the exhilaration and sadness in equal measure (yes, I killed something! oh shit, I killed something!). I remember the way the weapon kicked. I remember the ringing in my ears. I can bring some of that to the table. I can endeavor to make it authentic.
The Fact About Authenticity
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: strive for authenticity, but you can go ahead and fuck facts in the face. What matters is the sense of reality, not the actual reality. That something feels real rather than how something is real. (Example: In real life, let’s say I’m lucky enough to triumph over adversity by winning the lottery. In fiction, that’s a shitty story. Further, it’s a story I don’t believe. “How convenient,” I’ll say between quaffs of whisky. “That right there is a Deus Ex Machina,” I’ll mutter to my homemade office scarecrow slumped in the corner before pissing my pants yet again. Doesn’t matter that the lottery story happened. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel authentic. Hence, my groggy drunken pee-soaked rage.)
This is central to the piece of advice in question, by the way. Pairing that old chestnut with the notion that we’re striving for authenticity over fact clarifies the commandment. The advice then carries with it some unspoken addenda. Write what you know is not beholden to fact. It’s not married to those things you have literally experienced. It is married, however, to how you bring your experiences to the table.
You will never ride a space unicorn.
But you can ride a horse. Can’t be that different. Haven’t ridden a horse before? Read up on the topic and then call around and see if you can’t get on one of those animals — just to see how it feels and what kinds of behaviors the horse might exhibit.
You will never have a Dragon Uncle.
But maybe you had a weird uncle. Or had a friend with a weird uncle. And you can read up on iguanas. Then you can go to the pet store and watch how the lizards move. One-two punch: your own weird uncle plus iguana = Dragon Uncle!
You will never find a parallel dimension in your underpants.
But you have underpants. Stick your hands down there. Root around, then write about it. And you can read about parallel dimensions. And you know what it’s like to be in an awkward situation, in places where you don’t fit, where things don’t feel right — we’ve all had moments like that, haven’t we? (Of course we have. We’re mole people.) Borrow it. Use it. Find the core.
Can you make shit up? Yes! That’s fiction! That’s the fun of fiction! I love to make shit up. But making shit up can be bolstered by a foundation of authenticity — invisible, undetectable by the audience, but still the thing that holds your imagination aloft and makes it feel real.
(Oh, and let me say it one more time: turn off the video game and exit your home. Listen to the goddamn birds. Watch old people fight. Attack a neighbor with a rake. Whatever it takes. Plus, you need some sun. Seriously. You get vitamins from that shit. Your skin looks like bleached vellum, for Christ’s sake. You’re scaring the dogs. For realsies. Scaring the poop right out of their butts.)