Sunday, June 28, 2015

Write What you Half Know

When writers write about what writers should or should not do, they are almost always writing primarily about their own experience; writing is an activity about which it is notoriously hard to generalize. Is it even possible to make some qualified generalizations about what is likely to work best for most writers?

I'm not sure that it is. How true (or how helpful) is that well-worn of all pieces of advice given to those trying to write short stories, novels, or plays: "write what you know" (advice often attributed to Mark Twain, though there seems to be no evidence that it originates with him). That may seem sensible advice if one thinks of how Jane Austen or Edith Wharton or Scott Fitzgerald succeeded, but it's hard to see it as a recipe for creating worlds such as those that Theodor Seuss Geisel or Italo Calvino have created. Nor can Kazuo Ishiguro or Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood be said in any literal sense to have been writing what they knew in creating the worlds of Never Let Me Go and The Road and The Handmaid's Tale. Nor, for that matter, can writers of works of historical fiction--whether it's Longbourn, Jo Baker's wonderful evocation of an alternative world within Pride and Prejudice, or Tolstoy's War and Peace or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar--be said to have been writing what they knew.

The rejoinder is of course that one should not take the advice at a literal level--that Atwood was writing about something she knew (the oppression of women) and transforming it, that Shakespeare was writing about something he knew (hubris, betrayal, and so on), and transforming it, that all good writing transforms in one way or another what the writer knows. But surely in that case it is fair to point out that what makes these plays and novels work is the transformation, not the degree to which they are based on something known at the outset.

I want to put forward a different piece of advice: write what you half know. Find, somehow (and the how may be different for almost every writer, almost every time) an imaginative space in which you can both draw on things you know (whether about places, or manners and social nuance, or history, or the human heart), and allow your imagination and your subconscious free rein. Crucially, do not try to shut down the subconscious--the part of yourself that, by definition, you don't know, or don't know well.

In my conscious self I am largely uninterested in the supernatural, and I seem to lack any sense of the spiritual; I'm an atheist who for thirty years hasn't thought much about anything spiritual or supernatural. But when I was writing Rising Stories, something in my subconscious kept pushing to the fore elements that I think it would be quite reasonable to describe as spiritual or supernatural. All I can say about any of that is that I know those elements in the book do not come purely from imagination--that they draw on some part of my subconscious. No, I don't know that. I can't know that. At most I half know it.

More obviously, I only half know Chicago, where the story of the novel takes place. I have often visited Chicago but I have never lived there. Does setting a novel in a city one doesn't know well work against a writer? Or does it benefit the writer by leaving more space for the imagination to fill in? Like so much else, I cannot imagine there to be any rule about this. But if pressed for a phrase that gives an oversimplified expression of what works for me, write what you half know would probably be as good as I could come up with.

Again, that's just me. Write what you know may work for a lot of writers a lot more often than I might imagine. Even Dr Seuss (as anyone who has seen the fantastical plants of San Diego and its environs can attest) was writing about and drawing exactly what he knew far more often than most readers might imagine.

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