Photo Credit: Author Edith Wharton, around the time The House of Mirth was published. Wharton wrote about what she knew (the exclusive and snobby high society of New York’s Gilded Age) but infused it with imagination in her work. From The World’s Work, Volume 11, November 1905 to April 1906: Julian Felsenburgh/Wikimedia Commons/PD US
“I never heard [“write about what you know”] dismantled or criticized, and that omission [gives] it a backhanded kind of currency.” (Southwood, par. 3)
Ask any writer the first piece of writing advice they ever got and they will likely say, “write about what you know”. The idea is new writers need to dig into their own experiences and use it in their writing because it’s where their writing voice will emerge in the most authentic way possible and also the best place to get ideas (which also answers the question for new writers, “where do you get your ideas?”).
But Kate Southwood, in her article, “‘Write What You Know’ Is Not Good Writing Advice” points out this sage advice might not be so sage after all. She admits, “I’ve been known to pooh-pooh it as well-meaning but ultimately second-rate….. It’s reassuring to hear, and probably reassuring to say, but I believe it misdirects beginning writers and costs them time” (par. 1). Her reasons for rejecting this advice are that telling new writers to write about what they know “is simultaneously broad and narrow; it sounds universal and trustworthy, and is therefore easily mistaken for a magic pill” (par. 2). It’s true that writing about what you know is comforting to new writers who may be overwhelmed at how to begin writing. But, as Southwood states, it is not a magic pill, a be-all-end-all road to a successful writing career.
Southwood also complains that many beginning writers take the advice “write what you know” to mean writing about what they know in a literal sense – that is, their physical world, the “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” of their lives. In other words, “[f]or most beginning fiction writers, the phrase Write What You Know sounds like advice to produce thinly veiled autobiography” (Southwood, par. 4). So beginning writers write about what they know but without turning to the imagination to make what they know meaningful to a reading audience.
Many beginning writers defend their work by claiming “but that’s how it really happened!” As I pointed out in my blog post about diaries and fiction, what really happened may not be enough. It’s not so much what really happened (which can be a starting point) but the psychological reality behind what really happened that can transform a story into something unique and fascinating. In other words, what happened has to be accompanied by why it happened, what the characters felt about it, how it changed or didn’t change them, and how they move on from there.
Southwood tells the story of a writer critiqued during one of her MFA writing courses. She explains:
“Her story was dull, lifeless, and meandering. This didn’t work and that didn’t work, but she steadfastly deflected each criticism and stared at the printed pages as if they were letting her down and said to the rest of us, ‘If you only knew what a great story this is.’” (par. 5)
For Southwood, the problem was this writer had taken the advice “write what you know” and used it as “thinly veiled autobiography”. But I think the problem was probably more complex than that. Using your own experience to create fiction isn’t an issue, but using experience only in a literal sense – the “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” story without infusing emotional and psychological meaning (relevant to the characters, of course) produces a story that can be dull, lifeless, and meandering.
Writing about what you know comes in many different forms. One is incidents that strike writers as curious or odd or meaningful to them personally. These get filed away and can show up in the writer’s work (either consciously or unconsciously). For example, I discussed in my blog post about sincerity how an argument between my parents about giving money to the homeless found its way into one of my current works-in-progress, House of Masks. The incident itself wasn’t very interesting on its own (even to me, as my parents frequently argue on opposite sides of the fence because they hold different views on life). But it became a way of establishing the character of the dead father in the book as well as his attitude towards life and towards his wife.
Writers often take places they know well and use them in their fiction for setting. While I think this is understandable, setting can become much more vivid when it’s like a character in the book. Classic fiction writers knew this well. I talked a little bit about how the moors of Northern England became more than just scenery in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in my post about the psychological crucible, emphasizing the wild and knotty atmosphere that made Bronte’s Gothic romance so vivid and terrifying. On a completely different note, I’m currently rereading Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, a book about New York’s high society during the Gilded Age and everything surrounding the story of Lily Bart, from the townhouses in the city to the summer houses in Newport reeks of “old” money, snobbery, and an underlying vicious attitude from the “haves” towards the “have nots”.
With rare exceptions, the majority of my stories are set in the San Francisco Bay Area. The place isn’t just one of the most beautiful (and most expensive) in the United States but has special significant meaning for me personally, which I discussed in this guest blog post. The entire Waxwood Series (Book 1, The Order of Actaeon is set to be released next year) is set in Waxwood, an exclusive seaside resort town not far from San Francisco. While the town itself is fictional, I was influenced by many visits to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea in Northern California (both about a few hours away from San Francisco). Living in the Bay Area in my 20’s, I remember both as quaint, quiet little seaside villages. When I visited them twenty years later, they were still quaint and quiet, but a certain cool exclusivity had entered into the picture. The lovely crystal shops and fish-and-chips restaurants on the piers have been replaced by wine bars, pricey bath-and-body shops, and exclusive boutiques. I wanted to capture the dregs of quaintness and simplicity within these shee-sheefied towns in the setting of the Waxwood series.
I have nothing against “write what you know” but it takes imagination to transform the hum-drum that makes up most of our lives into something fiction-worthy. As Southwood herself laments, “It turns out it’s the bits I make up—the actual fictions—that lull me most often into emotional revelation” (par. 9). It’s exactly the fusion between the real and the imaginative that brings emotional revelation not just for the writer but for the reader as well.
Southwood, Kate. “‘Write What You Know’ is not Good Writing Advice.” Literary Hub. Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature, 2015-2017. 16 May 2017. Web. 10 August 2017.