Thursday, July 9, 2015

Don't Just Write What You Know

At Stonehenge researching The Hunter's Moon
An important rule of writing has always been to 'write what you know.' It was attributed to Hemingway, but it's probably just a misquote of something he said that was much more lofty:

From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation, but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.

See? That quote is not quite as easy to pass down as 'write what you know.' ;)

Bret Anthony Johnson is an award-winning author and fiction instructor at Harvard. He wrote the most amazing article for The Atlantic.com about how 'writing what you know' is actually the last thing you should be doing as a novelist.

What can improve your writing are the details of what you saw, know or experienced. If you're a war vet, you know what the sand feels like in your hands. You know what the smell of smoke is like 24/7. And you can probably describe some gory action scenes.

But real events and real experiences are just the 'scaffolding' that helps hold up your story. Real life isn't necessarily more compelling than a fictional world. In fact, it can actually seem smug or self-serving. And that's a turnoff for readers.

What you're trying to do is create something that transcends ordinary life. Something better than reality. As Hemingway said, 'a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.'

Johnson says you should also be writing about what you feel. We've all felt loss, love, fear, desire, jealousy. Those are the emotions we all 'know.' We must try to access these feelings in our stories because those are the things that will give our work life.

New York writer and editor, Jason Gots of BigThink.com agrees. He uses 'Method Acting' as an example. Robert DeNiro had never been a homicidal maniac before Taxi Driver. But as a Method actor, he could call on experiences in his own life that made him feel angry enough that he could relate to that character.

So, in a way, we should all be 'method writers' - using details and memories from our own lives to inform our writing, without being a slave to reality. Which just limits us.

Having said all of that, no matter what, you should know enough about the foundations of your story that you're comfortable and convincing. In her book, First Draft in 30 Days, Karen Weisner says you should comb used bookstores and libraries for information about your topic and interview all the experts you can, cops, lawyers, teachers, whatever.

I interviewed Sgt. David Griffiths of the East Hampton Village Police for scenes in By Invitation Only - and I toured the police station to boot. Most people are more than happy to help authors research their books. And for a simple mention in the acknowledgements, not only will you find the information invaluable - the experience is fun and fascinating, too. That picture from Stonehenge at the top of the post is a case in point because the great stone circle figures heavily in my latest book.

So don't worry about what you know when you write. Instead:

1) Use the details of your own experiences to add realism to descriptions.
2) Access the memory of your own feelings to bring dimension to your characters.
3) Learn everything you can about the people, places and things you're writing about.

But don't let your own life limit you in your work. Let yourself transcend your reality. I love this advice from Irish author William Trevor - considered to be one of the great masters of the short story:

Don't just write to express yourself, but to escape yourself. In the end, it will free you up as a writer.

btw - I'm about to join Twitter, Facebook et al - finally. I've had accounts, but I've rarely used them. I'm embarrassed it's taken me so long. I'm not a snob! I'm actually just shy! So if I chicken out and haven't posted any social media links in the next week (or two!) email me and give me hell! sherimcinnis@gmail.com.