Is the age-old adage of ‘Write what you know’ really the best advice to give to new writers? Author and editor Siobhán Parkinson shares her thoughts.
Let’s say your name is Amy and you have lived in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house in a nice estate on the outskirts of a medium-sized town in the midlands with two parents, two siblings – one older and one younger than you – and a dog for all of your eleven blameless years and your granny lives half a mile away and she makes apple tarts and you don’t much like apple tarts but they are a good excuse for whipped cream, which you do like, so you never let on about not liking apple tarts. Imagine your dad drives you to school every day on his way to work, and you have a teacher who is strict but fair and a bestie and two other nearly besties and there is also a bully in your class but you and your friends don’t get much trouble from him. Your favourite day of the week is Friday and your favourite colour is sky-blue and you love dolphins and Ed Sheeran and you hate homework and you go on camping holidays every year and your family is not all that well-off but is not very badly-off either and you all love camping and next year you are going to France. In other words, you are a very lucky and probably fairly typical eleven-year-old and you have a lovely life and this is what you know, along with a certain amount of maths and geography and spelling.
Now along comes an adult and tells you to write a story and they say, ‘No vampires, no fairies, no blood, no explosions, no winning the lottery, no magic – write what you know.’ So you write a very, very, very dull story about a girl who lives in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house in a nice estate on the outskirts of a medium-sized town in the midlands and nothing much happens in the story, except maybe an apple tart gets burned, and it’s all properly punctuated the way your teacher likes it and you never ever ever want to write a story again. One dead imagination. One satisfied adult. One more victim of the advice to ‘write what you know’.
Now, as it happens, what Amy knows is far, far more than what I have described above. She knows, for example, how to handle a bully; she very likely knows how to hold her own in her place as the middle child of the family; if she doesn’t actually know how to pitch a tent, she probably knows how to make sure not to annoy her dad while he is pitching it; she knows how to keep her teacher off her back; she certainly knows how not insulting her granny’s apple tarts gets her the cream; and, though she may or may not articulate it, she very probably knows that her parents love her.
She has all this emotional knowledge, but she doesn’t know she knows it, because it is a hidden kind of knowledge. When she is, say, 45, she might have reached a point where she knows what she knows, but at eleven, the knowledge is pretty inaccessible to her as material for writing. So when an adult tells her to write what you know, she writes superficially, because the deep stuff is so deep she’s hardly even aware of it.
That is why we do imaginative work – whether it’s writing or singing or painting or whatever. It is a way of accessing our hidden emotional knowledge so that we can use it to shape an artefact – a song or a story or a picture, for example. We are all ‘writing what we know’ when we do that, drawing on our hidden inner selves, but what comes out of this exercise very often does not, to an outsider, look like what they think we know. So if Amy writes a story about a fairy princess who transforms into a dolphin and marries the dolphin king, she may well be writing out of her own deepest desires, but to the teacher, she is not writing what she knows – she is not writing about loving Ed Sheeran and hating homework and going camping.
This advice is of course also given to novice adult writers, and if the novices take the advice and banish their dragons, monsters and fairy godmothers, we get eccentric uncles and pen-portraits of poets or patriots; we get picnics on the beach and trips in Morris Minors; we get tributes to favourite places or people or objects; and a lot of this is very delightful and it’s mostly also very slight.
Much better advice than ‘Write what you know,’ is ‘Know what you write.’ In other words, if you’re writing, say, historical fiction, do your research, steep yourself in the knowledge you need to write about your subject, and avoid (oh, classic error!) projecting 21st-century ways of thinking onto 19th-century characters and situations. This is good advice, but it’s technical advice. It’s the kind of advice any halfway decent editor or creative-writing teacher can give to any halfway good writer.
What the more thoughtful and sophisticated members of the write-what-you-know brigade are really trying to get novice writers to do is to write with authenticity. In their better moments, what they are trying to get you to do is to write from your deepest self; write out of your own lived experience – not the superficial facts of your life, but your own inner emotional experience; and use details of your actual lived experience – the colour of the sky where you grew up, the taste of honey from your grandmother’s beehive, all that sort of stuff – because these things are your authentic personal experience and when you write them, you will do so with authority. But if that is all you do – write about your own sensuous experience and your own memories – your writing may have colour and texture but it may very well not have depth. Your writing will only gain depth if you give yourself over to the craft of making it and allow your imagination to expand your personal experience. In other words, begin with the known but allow your imagination to bring you into the unknown – because that’s where the good stuff is.