On my mind lately has been this one cliché you hear in writing workshops and how-to books: “Write what you know.”
I might be facing a battle if I admit this, but I believe it wholeheartedly. I think my writing is more authentic and so much better when I’m writing something I have first-hand knowledge of. As a reader I hate the generic, unspecific, and bland. I get very aware when something feels inauthentic. I suspect the author doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about. And so I lose interest and look for something else to read.
Yes, I’ve embraced this writing cliché wholeheartedly. I believe this so much that I think there are things I can never write about. The last adult novel I wrote fails because of this. I learned my lesson. I’ll be writing what I know from now on.
To those of you who don’t know—or don’t care—the new season of Gossip Girl will be airing Monday night and some people are extremely excited about it. I was pointed to Gawker, where script sides from an upcoming episode were leaked. You might not want to click this link or read below if you’re worried about a spoiler.
Okay, so there’s this kid Dan. He’s in high school. His first story ever sent out in the world (by a friend, without his knowledge) was published in The New Yorker. I almost threw a rock at the TV when that happened. I mean, kill me at your easy privileged existence, Dan, I hate you. No but seriously. In the scene that leaked, Dan is having nice little one-on-one meeting with some guy who is supposed to be the editor of the Paris Review. (The Paris Review!) The editor is helping Dan with his writing samples for college. No joke. I might throw rocks. No really but seriously**, the Paris Review editor says Dan’s stories suck. He says:
Editor: You sent me five stories, all about a sheltered young man with girl trouble who lives with his daddy in Brooklyn. You think that’s going to knock the Yale English Department off their tenured asses?
Dan: I just– I thought a writer was supposed to write what he knows. This is what I know.
Editor: Then learn something new! Get out of your comfort zone. A cardinal rule of writing: if your work’s too safe, do something dangerous.
Dan: I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Editor: Then find someone who DOES know. When I was young, Bukowski* put a shot glass on my head and blew it off with a pistol. Find your Bukowski, then get back to me…
So there you have it. The imaginary editor of a real literary magazine agrees with me about writing what you know… sort of. If you want to write about something you don’t know, go out and try to know it first. Even if it hurts. You’d probably get a good story out of it if it hurts. Knowing where my interests lean, I think that could be very dangerous. Though I do think there’s a way of knowing that doesn’t have to be so literal. But for me, a writer with a pretty limited imagination, I must have a taste of something before I can put it down on the page in any real way. I don’t want to copy what I’ve seen from books or movies—I want it to feel like it came straight from life. Surely this limits my stories, but let’s see how I do. Anyway, after getting the imaginary TV editor’s advice stuck in my head, I suppose we should all be glad I’m not writing about prostitutes anymore.
Thoughts? Arguments? Is this post so trashy you can’t even respond?
* A Gawker commenter pointed out this should probably be Burroughs, but whatever.
** Seriously? The whole subplot last season with 16-year-old Dan becoming a published fiction writer in The New Yorker of all places on his first try was so upsetting and ridiculous I can’t let it go. Kids, it ain’t so easy. Believe me. Wow, I really have to stop taking things so literally.