Friday, November 2, 2012

The 'Write What You Know' Myth

"Write what you know."

This phrase gets misinterpreted almost more than certain religious tomes. It's one of those vague bits of writerly advice that might have a kernel of helpfulness buried in the muck, but the words themselves have become meaningless. Even so, people keep throwing it around, perpetuating bad writing and confusion. This post is just my interpretation. Don't stalk me with sporks and ninja throwing stars if you see it differently. Again with the many interpretations bit.

Write What You Know (WWYK) doesn't mean transcribing your life events. If your  characters break up, you shouldn't make it exactly like your break up. In my Puke or Death post, I talked about how writing is reality, but better. WWYK is, too. Reality, but better.

Everyday dialogue is filled with boring crap that people don't want to read. When real life events are going down, we say the first thing that comes to mind. We act in predictable ways. Both are things to avoid in writing. People don't want to read about boring, predictable characters. They want to be entertained, transported, and that holy grail of reading, enlightened.

WWYK isn't an excuse to regurgitate your life events instead of creating living, breathing characters--it's a reminder to use your life experiences to connect with other human beings. It's using what you know to write what you don't.

Maybe you've never been in a relationship but you need to write a break-up scene. Have you ever had a fight with your best friend? Have you ever been betrayed by someone close to you? (Or done the betraying?) The same feelings of bitterness, anger, confusion, frustration, etc will be similar. You don't have to have been through the things your protagonist goes through in order to write them convincingly. You just have to connect with your character as a human (Alien? Vampiric?) being.

J.K. Rowling has never been a magical little boy in an abusive household locked in a cupboard BUT she wrote it convincingly. Neil Gaimen is certainly not a little girl with a creepy, button-eyed other mother. As far as I know, Phillip Pullman never had a daemon or a polar bear friend. These authors created amazing, convincing characters and worlds because they are good at studying human nature. They create characters that resonate with us, characters that are so powerful we are fully convinced they are real--and they do it all without cheating the reader and themselves by taking the easy way out. That is, regurgitating every emotionally charged conversation they've ever had.

In the movie Inception, there's one line that always reminds me of writing. When Leo DeCaprio's character is showing Ellen Page how to be a dream architect, he tells her never to recreate anything from memory. Take a lamppost or a window pane here, a sign there, and use them to create something new. It's the same with story crafting. Bits and pieces of reality--a snippet of conversation overheard on the daily commute, the fluttery feelings of a first crush, a particularly striking visual committed forever to memory--those things build people and worlds. 

WWYK isn't an excuse to cop out. It's a gentle reminder that we're all human and so have human experiences we can use to connect with our readers. Readers are people, too.

So next time you're tempted to model your characters' split after your own break up, leave the words and take the emotions. Your character will say what's right for her without you putting your words in her mouth. And because you trusted her, there will be wittier lines, irony, deeper truths, and symbolism you never managed in your real life split--because you've taken the time to craft it and milk the scene for everything you can get from it, in a way that's true to your character.

Reality but better.

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