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Monday, June 29, 2020

On Writing: The Curse of “Write What You Know” • by Bruce Bethke

Aspiring fiction writers and Creative Writing instructors share a lot of really bad advice with each other, but of all these, “Write What You Know” is probably the worst, or at least the most misunderstood. I hold this one piece of advice and everyone who shares it personally responsible for all those whiny novels about angry middle-aged housewives trying to work up the courage to file for divorce, those excruciating short stories about the terrible angst and drama of growing up gay and Jewish in suburban New York, those tedious novels about 20-something-year-olds with newly minted MFAs who are simultaneously working at Starbucks, breaking up with their girlfriends, and struggling to find their existential purpose in the world, and most of all, for all those wretchedly unreadable novels about middle-aged small-college Creative Writing instructors who are going through their midlife crises, estranged from their own children, separated from their wives, crushed by self-doubt because they never really pursued their dream of becoming a novelist, and tormented by their desire to have an affair with that hot and perky 19-year-old in their 10:00 MWF American Lit 201 class.

(Or perhaps even worse: the corresponding attempted novels by hot and perky but marginally literate 19-year-olds who are like totally creeped out by the way that smelly old professor—I mean like, seriously, really old, like, he must be almost 45!—stares at them all the time in their 10:00 MWF American Lit 201 class, but then again they’re just starting to realize that there might be an easier way to get an “A” in the class than by reading that big fat book by that Moby guy.)

C’mon people, this is fiction! “Write What You Know” isn’t a license to give voice to your inner Theodore Dreiser and whine at length about all the tedious and frustrating details of your daily life! It’s a spice you can use to add flavor to what you write! Use it sparingly!

Especially if you’re writing science fiction: write what you don’t know! Write what nobody knows! If you’ve had an interesting and exciting life, write an autobiography! If you’re only twenty years old and all you know is what you’ve read in other people’s books and seen in other people’s movies and TV shows, get out of the dorm! Live a little!

If you’re writing science fiction because you are in fact the latest reincarnation of an alien who was exiled to Earth ten million years ago and you must purge all your negative memories before you can return to your home planet—look, they’ve made great strides in psychiatric medications in recent years. You really should give them another chance.


Invictus said...

“Write what you know” seems like, as you said, it’s taken too literally; a lot of aspiring writers take it to mean “Write about your specific life experiences and thoughts and people you know,” but what your average writer “knows” is a little broader than that. How malls and public spaces are laid out wherever you live, general telephone etiquette, how to order a pizza in [insert town here], what TV shows were watched last year…all of these little things go into making up the world we live in. Whatever genre you’re working in, these little details—whether they’re on the page or just in the writer’s head—help make a milieu believable. Putting those details, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, into a fictional world help ground that reality, no matter what kind of wonky shit the characters get up to.
Having survived a respectable MFA program, I can say that in my experience, the dullest fiction I read was by writers who kept their focus strictly within only what they “knew.” That always seemed like a failure of imagination to me. Why not extrapolate a little? When did research, talking to other people, or people watching stop being considered useful? Some of that reluctance is probably due to fear of getting things wrong, but damn. That’s what multiple drafts and beta readers are for. I wrote plenty of dull “literary” fiction as a grad student, but I also tried to branch out a little and get into areas I had no experience in. I wasn’t successful for the most part, but them’s the breaks.

Mark Keigley said...

I know a bit about possums.... :)

~brb said...

And the possums know a *lot* about you, Mark!