Cliches. Sometimes as a cliche matures, it kinda takes on a life of its own. Not too long ago I read:
Thing about it is, when a phrase is carelessly tossed around enough, people stop talking about what it means. And they carelessly assume that everyone knows or that it’s perfectly obvious. And, can you imagine, people sometimes do this when providing instruction and advice?
This came up recently when Kettle and I went back and forth on the topic of Write Like You Talk, and in the end what I had to say was that it’s like that chestnut: Write What You Know. It may not be the simple, straightforward advice it seems, and maybe one ought to think twice before dispensing it without explanation. No drive-by, hit and run advice for impressionable writers.
So after that, Kettle said: you should really write a post about your issues with the whole Write What You Know thing; she said she had some thoughts on that herself. And I filed it away and tried to forget about it, and I can’t tell you how many times it’s popped up since. Ok. I give. Here’s the post.
Not too long ago, I was participating in an online group for amateur writers and the subject came up: I want to write, but everyone says Write What You Know and I feel like I haven’t got enough experience to write anything yet. And others chimed in with yes, they had that same issue, and since they only wrote from their own experience, it made them feel trapped, and like they were so limited on what kinds of stories they could tell.
I totally related to what they were saying, because I used to feel that. Everyone says that, and for some people, on some basic level, it sinks in in a very literal way. I don’t know at what point I got my head straight on it, but I think it came during a period in which I read a lot of fantasy and it hit me: Anne McCaffrey has never been to Pern nor had dragon hormones influence her sex life. Yet here’s this incredibly detailed world with a complex society and an entire history and development of the society and it’s people–and she’s never been there! How can this be?
[I don’t want to discuss how people “see” or “live in” different worlds in their heads. I don’t discount that by any means, but it is not the topic I’m on here, ok?]
For some people, it’s always been obvious. Write What You Know never gave them pause. Others have found themselves shackled by a simple misunderstanding. So I’m going to try to explain what it means to me now.
I think what makes Pern or any other story world real to us is the author’s ability to allow us to relate to it and the characters who inhabit it. This is true, not just for fantasy worlds, but for stories set in our own world as well, not just for worlds, but for characters. The more relatable–er, accessible is probably the right word–the elements of the story are to the reader, the more the reader is going to connect with the story, suspend disbelief, feel with and for the characters.
And here’s where Write What You Know comes in for me. If you want to write a story about someone being stalked by a psychopath or chased by a killer or hunted by a demon, does that mean that if those things have never happened to you, you can’t write it? No. When you’re writing those scenes, what does your character feel? Fear. We’ve all felt fear. Maybe we don’t know bone-deep, life-and-death, stone-cold, insert other hyphenated cliche terror here, but we know what fear feels like. And, as writers, we remember that, we allow ourselves to experience that again, and we describe it as vividly as we can through the eyes of our character in his or her current situation. Same thing goes for embarrassment, hate, love, longing, grief… You write your character into the situation, and you feel it for them. Remember how your heart pounded, how you felt dizzy, how you thought you’d never make it through the moment or didn’t want to or didn’t want it to end. And make us feel it too.
Write What You Know is about emotions. Because emotions are what is common in the human experience. We all have our different histories, stories, backgrounds and experiences that we bring with us every time we pick up a book to read. But the feelings we’ve felt when X happened to us are very similar to the feelings that Jane Doe had when a very different and yet sort of the same Y happened to her. So we can pick up the same book and, if it’s done well, we’re probably going to be able to feel the same feelings for the character as well. Cool, huh?
While we sometimes think that imagination in books is all on the shoulders of the writer, it kinda isn’t. The writer built the exhibit, and the writer’s your tour guide through it. But as the reader, it’s up to your own imagination to experience it, isn’t it? It’s a joint venture, from her head to yours via your shared experience.
There’s no question that experience can enrich your writing. It’s only logical that the more you bring with you, the more you’ll have to work with. But it’s not necessarily true that whoever comes with the most life experience will write the best book. After all, people are walkin’ around all over the place, having all kinds of experiences they can’t possibly begin to put into words. (Read a few random blogs today, see you if you don’t get what I’m saying.)
Don’t let youth and/or inexperience stop you from writing, and telling the story you want to tell. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that you haven’t done enough to be a writer. You’ve survived this life this long, you’ve got stuff inside you. Make believable characters others can relate to by writing your own experience into them. Now go Write What You Know.
Kettle’s written on the same topic today. Go check it out.