Write What You Know or Forever Hold Your Peace
Why writing what you don’t know may be a better idea.
If you’re seeking a fitting way to describe the writing tips that innumerable book blogs and writing handbooks are jammed with to the point of their bursting and our indigestibility, the best term any dictionary has to offer is this: a disease. And a contagious one, too. Yes, a disease; because they’re like a disease plaguing the bodies and haunting the minds of aspiring writers in the same ruthless manner as the truly impartial and apolitical diseases that, for centuries, have been decimating soldiers huddling in mud-sodden trenches, regardless of the rank insignia on their uniforms and the side of the barricade they were on.
However, at this early point, I should draw a clear distinction between the usually harmless and innocent motivational quotes rehashing the statements made by this or that eminent author, and the bits of writing advice that the how-to books are rife with, like a prison cell is with tally marks. While the former serve as an often-useful means of rekindling one’s floundering passion for writing in the inevitable moments of doubt, the latter do nothing else but pollute and tyrannize the minds and artistic souls of prospective writers, like an ever-present teacher who is always peering over your shoulder wherever you turn.
Such writing tips are remarkably successful in suppressing them and silencing them for good.
One may even get the impression — and not an entirely unfounded one — that famous literary figures often seem to be involved in this nefarious scheme of peddling writing tips to the boundless crowd of struggling authors with a single aim in mind: to drastically reduce the number of their potential competitors. Why is that? It suffices to take so much as a cursory look at those so-called bookish commandments, at that self-professed holy word of the book-writing community, to realize that instead of motivating the newcomers to the land of letters, instead of bringing out the best in them, those ostensibly helpful tips tend to paralyze the very ones they’ve been devised to help, and the chilling effect induced by them often proves to be too inhibitive and too crippling — especially for someone seeking external validation of their writing skills, style, and ideas — to overcome at all. Such writing tips, instead of encouraging them to speak up, to write their artistic souls out, are remarkably successful in suppressing them and silencing them for good, like an interrogatory, bloodshot gaze of a police officer before you’ve even committed any crime.
For instance, imagine the young F. Scott Fitzgerald believing too readily the often-repeated advice about every writer’s sacred duty to wage a war on adverbs and to purge one’s writing of them entirely, as if they were a disgraceful habit one ought to be ashamed of even in one’s own intimate presence. Would he ever have been able to create his classic and adverb-laden masterpieces? Would he have been capable of writing anything at all? Or rather, would he have decided that he was a hopeless case, that he was at fault here, that his writings were unfit for publication, only because he failed to conform to this imaginary and downright toxic rule? Would he ever have had a chance to fathom that a quality that is widely regarded as a defect, as a disqualifying weakness, as an embarrassing flaw, can easily be turned into an invaluable asset, into a unique and distinguishing component of one’s style, with the aid of one’s individual talent, and that others are unable to replicate the effect it creates due to their glaring lack of such a talent?
And now imagine an insecure novice author encountering all those formidable restrictions, warnings, and no-noes leaping at him or her from the websites and know-it-all books that, supposedly, are there to assist them in their often-painful initiation into the literary world. After all, not everyone has to be endowed with the insane perseverance of the likes of Jack London or Samuel Beckett who miraculously endured a hail of rejection slips without losing their minds and suffering from too severe a depletion of their self-confidence. And so, imagine that insecure, frail writer — because being an artist usually entails possessing a fragile and delicate nature allowing you to notice and describe things that others barely give half a thought to — stumbling across a medley of similar bookish prohibition signs; what would such a potential author do? Most likely, that person would feel trapped, oppressed, very much like a cornered animal — yet with paperclips in place of claws — and unable to express themselves not only properly, not only eloquently, but at all. Hence one less competitor for the already established literary figures — another one bites the bookish dust.
Not everyone has to be endowed with the insane perseverance of the likes of Jack London or Samuel Beckett who miraculously endured a hail of rejection slips.
However, the alluringly glittering crown of stupidity among such words of advice indisputably goes to the one about writing what you know. This particular writing tip is so asinine that, if it were any more ludicrous, those responsible for disseminating it would be able to actually hear the void of its idiocy suck in the light and time. It certainly must seem particularly terrifying and intimidating to young writers, who, when they compare their rather brief life experience with the interminable careers of their beloved masters, are liable to reach a conclusion that they know so little about the facts of life that there’s no use picking up a pen and writing about anything at all. Thus, is it true that as a writer, as a person who’s sole job is to imagine things that don’t exist — because, let’s face it, that’s what imagination is for — you’re hopelessly tethered to the mundane level of hard facts, you’re bound to write only about the very things that happened to you personally? Is there any kind of logic buried somewhere in this method that won’t impinge on the reserves of one’s brain cells?
But if there’s so much as a single, half-chewed crumb of truth in all that pitiful gibberish, then what about the literary genres having little, if anything, to do with depicting reality as it is, and, by their very nature, are based on imagining the most improbable scenarios and situations the human mind can possibly conjure up without resorting to liquor or other stimulants? What about the literary genres whose very cornerstone is weaving plots around the things the author knows little to nothing about? What about historical romances? Or about science-fiction novels? Do those spreading such intellectual pollution claim that every fledgling science-fiction author ought to fly to Mars and back before being allowed to put pen to paper, or let himself be abducted by aliens at least once a week to be called a sci-fi writer worth his salt? Perhaps it implies that this salt should also come from outer space, like those lunar samples, that cosmic contraband, smuggled by astronauts from the moon? Who knows. And what about the endlessly fertile field of political thrillers? Is that last category reserved only for former political analysts, disgraced advisers, and retired politicians who have become so corrupt in their professional lives that the frail state of their conscience can be matched by a typical citizen only by his or her osteoporosis-affected bones? What about immensely popular crime novels? Are they within the literary reach only of people languishing on death rows across the country after having chopped their in-laws to neat and even pieces and put them up for auction on eBay? I don’t think so. And following this absurd logic a bit further: How many masked bandits does a western author have to capture, bring to justice, and then, having done the thankless job, hang around the nearest Starbucks which he or she mistakes for a saloon, to gain moral authority to pen such stories right before being hauled off to the psychiatric ward for pestering everyone for a spittoon?
What about the literary genres whose very cornerstone is weaving plots around the things the author knows little to nothing about?
Nonetheless, there are also those who strive — with that note of desperation ringing in their voice — to defend this indefensible piece of writing advice by asserting that it’s not what we all believe it’s all about, that there’s more to it than meets the outraged eye, and that it’s actually more profound than it may seem to its detractors blinded by their scorn for it, stemming from nothing else but their lack of understanding of its workings and basic principles. Well, perhaps. But I suppose there’s a greater chance that it’s just a poor and hastily concocted line of defense, like the one used by a crook who hopes to slink out of the police station by claiming that he’s in the wrong lineup.
So, its defenders state that this writing tip is somehow misunderstood by legions of young authors, that it isn’t about devising purely autobiographical stories, about drawing inspiration solely from a reservoir of your own antics and misadventures — which can be quite easy only if you’re a reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson — but rather it’s about endowing your characters with the kind of emotions and yearnings that you find relatable. Such emotions are jealousy, love, loss, etc. Let’s stop for a minute here. If I’m not mistaken, every single emotion from this litany has, at least once, been experienced by every human being above the age of one and a half, unless he or she has somehow decided not to grow up, following in the tiny footsteps of Oskar from Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. If so, then this advice is not so much gravely misunderstood as simply misleading, for it should say: Put your emotions on paper. Why? Because there’s not much to analyze about it here. If everyone has experienced such emotions, if they’re readily and equally accessible to all of us, regardless of whether you lead an adventurous, Hemingwayesque lifestyle or try to earn your hemorrhoids by never leaving your chair, then there’s no secret here, then every author while beginning to sketch letters on paper or computer screen draws from the wide spectrum of truly human emotions known to them since childhood, even if the story born from it turns out to be nothing but dreadful.
There are countless factors that contribute to the verdict whether a story will be considered “good” or “bad” or just “meh,” but in nearly all the cases they are related to the individual aspects and characteristics of the specific story, and not to some arbitrary rules. I, for one, don’t count myself among the admirers of flashbacks as they tend to shatter the continuity of the narrative and ruin the mood and tension you’ve meticulously been building in your reader since page one. They are like a person interrupting a romantic evening complete with candles, wine, and everything that glossy magazines have ever suggested for the occasions like this one, to go and file their tax return. Moreover, if handled carelessly, they may undermine your reader’s implicit trust in anything you write from then on in that story, and every thrilling plot twist you put in there will instinctively be dismissed as yet another of your shamefully misused flashbacks. But that doesn’t mean that flashbacks are inherently in poor taste and should be banished from all writing at once! Whether a flashback is executed well or whether it fails miserably depends on a plethora of factors that are unique to a particular story, to a given fictional situation, that can’t be reproduced that easily, and thus shouldn’t be recklessly employed as a broad generalization, whereas writing tips are exactly that, they’re harmful generalizations that are busy stifling creativity instead of treating everyone individually.
After all, no matter what your story is about, no matter who your characters may be, you’re invariably writing what you know.
In this era of the shameless proliferation of damaging writing tips pouring out of every computer screen and smartphone display, you shouldn’t feel hectored, much less inhibited, by any of them, and especially not by this one. After all, no matter what your story is about, no matter who your characters may be, you’re invariably writing what you know. Why is that? Because you can’t do it differently, you can’t do it in any other way, you simply can’t write what you don’t know. So, just write.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.