Thursday, October 9, 2008

Write What You...? No.

Over on Nathan Bransford's blog,* Nathan asks readers to share their traumas by listing the worst writing advice they were ever given. There are definitely some doozies. But the thing about writing advice is it's often hard to see when you're getting the bad stuff. (When are you getting the bad stuff? When it's treated as an absolute.) What I've discovered is that sometimes good advice is confused for bad, largely because it gets lost in translation.

"Write what you know."

One of the oldest, if not THE oldest, bits of sage advice around. Some people hear this and they nod, closing their eyes to indicate deep understanding. Others rebel and say, "If we only wrote what we knew, we wouldn't have books like LORD OF THE RINGS or books that deal with experiences no human has had."

This is a good example of what is ultimately a very good bit of advice that, without follow through (or in the hands of the wrong instructor) can go very, very wrong. It's advice that should come with a warning label: You must be this introspective to use this mantra. It's advice that some writers take to one extreme (limiting their repetoire to only writing stories with an autobiographical protagonist who does exceedingly boring things) or the other (the aforementioned "But we wouldn't have LOTR!"). Every day across the world, writing teachers unleash these four words once every six minutes** but it's the excellent writing teachers who lend it a bit of context and explain HOW to use the advice.

Here's the secret: it's not literal. "Write what you know" does not mean limit yourself to the mundane things you encounter on a day to day basis. It's a plea to funnel your experiences, your thoughts, and all the little lessons you've accumulated in life into the worlds and characters you create to lend them that ring of familiarity. Readers love to be swept away in imagination but there's always that bit that pleads, "Give me something I can relate to." No, no one I know has ever been to wizarding school. That's not what J. K. Rowling knew either (so she made it up...shocking, I know). BUT, as Harry grew older and struggled with his growing attraction to girls and the awkwardness of often being branded an outsider, well, Jo just didn't pull that out of a pointed hat. She wrote what she knew about and used it to give her characters depths and feelings. Write what you know isn't about plot, it's about character and soul and those bizarre little quirks that motivate us, for good or bad. It's about articulating your curiosity, your heartbreak, and that which gives you fever.

It's a fact: books infused with our own personal truths are better. (Prove me wrong. I dare ya.)The best plot in the world won't be sustained by cardboard characters spouting cliches. Depth comes from complexities, contradictions, and drive that can only be conveyed with self-examination and a willingness to bare the results. This holds true whether your story is a heart-wrenching, teen angst-ridden drama or a light, funny beach read. And if possible, I think this holds even more true for the fiction we label YA. As Barbara Shoup once told me: "Teens have amazing crap detectors." If you're not writing what you know in a YA book, you'll get called on it.
Every time.

The best writing advice I ever got? It's not so much advice but it's a quote I keep near my computer that I look to whenever I get stuck.

"You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."
--Annie Dillard

To me, it says everything I hope to get across when I write and what I hope to see when I read the works of others. "Show me what astonishes/surprises/confuses you." If your characters are astonished, they have to deal with that. And THAT'S where the heart of your story comes from.

Look closely at what Dillard's saying. YOUR astonishment. It has nothing to do with wizarding schools and spaceships and yet everything to do with it. Because, in the end, writing what you don't know should always be informed by what you do know.

*=Do you read Nathan's blog? You should.

**=Totally made-up stat.


cuileann said...

:Readers love to be swept away in imagination but there's always that bit that pleads, "Give me something I can relate to.":

I think that's very true. Reminds me of what my classical lit. professor said, that it's the mix of familiarity and strangeness that makes us love a book. It requires us to interpret, to wonder at and figure out things particular to the context, but also allows us to realize universal things, things that are the same across civilizations and time.

Great post. And I love that Dillard quote.

Linda Joy Singleton said...

One variation on the "write what you know" advice that I much prefer is to "write what you want to know" -- which to me means write the book you want to learn from and that you want to personally read.


Kirstin Cronn-Mills said...

A mix of familiarity & strangeness: I hadn't though of it like that.

Sure does make me think about what's coming out of my mouth when I'm with my students.

Barbara Shoup said...

I love Grace Paley's variation on "write what you know." She said write what you don't know about what you know.