Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Write What You Know ... Or Don't ... But Only Sometimes?

We've all heard that tired piece of so-called advice: Write what you know. If you go traipsing about the writerly corners of the blogosphere, you'll find a lot of posts about why that's ridiculous.

And it is, especially when taken literally. If my novels were strictly based on things I know (i.e., have experienced), my family should be very worried about me. (Alternate dimensions? Human-alien hybrids? Uh, yeah.)

In some senses, though, I do write what I know, because I use my knowledge in lots of different ways as I write. I have deaf characters in two different projects. Yeah, that's something I know a thing or two about. If I didn't, I don't think I would dare attempt to write them. But there are other ways to gain that knowledge than by day-to-day living it.

I think we all know that we need to do our homework when writing, researching and educating ourselves about various topics that weave their way into the story. In that sense, we will write what we know, only we didn't know it until we needed to write it. (And as a friend recently noted, our search-engine histories can look really ... um ... interesting.)

There's knowledge, and then there's experience. Obviously we write about things we haven't experienced, and in many cases, we never could experience. (Again, crossing dimensions? Or, say, what some catastrophic injury feels like? Or what it's like to murder someone?)

But here's a thought: Are there some things, probably less out of the ordinary than the examples I mentioned, that you really must experience yourself?

A fellow writer recently posited that there are—that certain things will never be written well by a person who hasn't experienced them firsthand. I'm not going to go into it, because I don't want to color the responses.

Can you think of anything? Any at all? Or is the idea a load of hooey?

Make your case, for or against. I'm really curious to see what the general consensus is.


Richard said...

That's a pretty tough question to answer. My final answer is: you do not have to have experienced something--anything--firsthand to write about it. When I say "anything", I mean anything. Our imaginations use what we know in such a way that we write whatever it is in the way we understand it, and we create the rest.

Tyson said...

I think you CAN write about anything if you are willing to take the time into learning about it. Which means, if you want to write about pregnancy, but you've never been preggers, you need to ask around, read some books, watch some horrific birthing videos. If you want to write about a wounded soldier, but you've never been a soldier or been to war, you better be sitting down with someone who has been.

This is to create something authentic. To tap into the emotions and experience the best you can.

That said, humans react and experience things differently. So, who is anyone to say that your character isn't experiencing something to their capacity.

The worst is reading something you know someone didn't take the time or care or energy to research. Like when a book is set in a specific country, but the details are all wrong. Frustrating.

Brent Stratford said...

I guess I am going to be in the minority here. I think there are some things you can't possibly write well if you have never experienced them.

For example: The summer after I graduated high school a friend came into my room at 3am and told me my mom had been killed by a drunk driver. She had been both my anchor to the family and the shield from my domineering father. That type of loss brings a pain and shock that I do not believe could be written by someone who has not experienced something similar. Sure, you might be able to get away with writing it from a 3rd person POV and you could elicit some emotion based on your sympathy for the character, but unless you have experienced it yourself, anything you'd write from a first person POV would be woefully hollow.

I agree that there are a great many topics you can research and write about. You can imagine new worlds, new technology, different experiences, but unless you have experienced intense emotions, you absolutely CANNOT write about them -- at least not well.

caroline said...

Brent--I am so sorry for your loss! And I'll have to agree with you. I think you can write about many, many things you have not experienced with good research, but some things are better left to those that have experienced them. I also lost my mother unexpectedly at age nine and when I read books that attempt to put a child character in that situation, I can tell right off if the author experienced this themselves.

That being said, I think much we choose to write about come from things we'd LIKE to experience. (Except maybe murder.)

Jean Oram said...

Um. both!

I think there are some things we can imagine. There are other things where we need to delve into research. I was talking to an author last night and she said her stories are always about moms because that is what she knows well. It's what she can truly bring to life. And I think there is something in that. I had to put my cat down a few years ago and the emotions and thoughts that came with that experience were very unexpected. They were not something I could have imagined, but they are something others could identify with. But if I had interviewed others... I don't think that would have come out. Does that make any sense?

journeyman6216 said...

I believe that we can write about anything if we do our homework, research even if we haven't experienced it. If we couldn't there would never be gripping science fiction, period pieces, or fantasy works. I think what experience in a particular subject does is allow deeper persepctive. The sudden, unexpected death of my best friend in while with me forever changed the way I think and therefore write about the subject. The nuances were different. The greys more shaded. The best analogy I can think of was that it is like watching analog TV versus digital. There is a clarity and a vibrancy to the hues of the subject that we were not able to see before having never been there. And once we have that type of clarity it affects our writing and thus presentation of a subject. Its not that there weren't wonderful and classic television shows in our old technology. We just reached a higher level of clarity having come to understand that there is a different way to view it. There are also many writers who have an innate gift of empathy that cannot be discounted. They can understand and write about a subject they haven't experienced just through the exercise of that gift.

Matt Sinclair said...

I think it's possible to write almost anything. The question ultimately is how well, how believable a scene comes across. There will be scenes that a writer can only imagine, and if readers write to the author and say, "Sorry, you didn't hit that nail properly," it enables the author to communicate with a reader who knows. Perhaps such a conversation inspires another character... We do what we can to the best of our abilities and accepet that we'll never be perfect.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks for all the comments so far, everyone. :)

I choose to believe that we can write authentically about any basic human experience (even those we haven't been through ourselves) with a combination of imagination, second-hand experience, and research. It may take some trial and error to get it just right, but I believe it's possible.

Because if that's not true, I'm in trouble. ;)

MarcyKate said...

I've always taken the write what you know advice on more of an emotional level than a literal one. We all experience the full range of human emotions and while we may write about certain situations we haven't personally experienced that cause loss or happiness in our books, we can still draw on our own experiences to relate to that and express it successfully with emotional depth.

E.B. Black said...

Sometimes I CAN'T write what I know first hand because it usually involves other people that I know in person who get offended or upset when I write about it. I once had a story idea that I don't want to directly talk about and I told the other person who was affected by the event we were both going through about it and they got extremely upset with me. Now I'm scared when my stories even slightly resemble reality.