distraction no.99

Nova Ren Suma | On Writing & Writing Distractions

Not an Author Newsletter… something else.

Write What You Know: Gossip Girl Edition

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.


9 responses to “Write What You Know: Gossip Girl Edition”

  1. personally, I just despise it when writers write about writers- especially film/tv writers. It’s so fucking arch, it’s so fucking twee and back-slappy and self-felating and HATE/RAGE.

    Californiacation can suck my unmentionables. ANY writer that falls back on the “my main character is a writer and he’s all angsty and snarky and blabbityblahcakes) deserves The Fist.

    Razzlefrazzlemumblegrumble. I don’t always feel this way. Or this strongely. Except when I do.

  2. 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.


    I have mixed feelings about this, tbh. My whole approach to ‘write what you know’ is kind of far-reaching, because so much of my ideas come from ‘what ifs’ /situations that I haven’t personally been in. So what you said here: Though I do think there’s a way of knowing that doesn’t have to be so literal. Applies to my approach.

    Robert Cormier didn’t go through hell and back for a Chocolate Sale, but you couldn’t convince me he hadn’t from reading The Chocolate War. But Robert Cormier, I think, had known and understood loneliness and wanting to be more at an age when you are expected to be more etc (both major themes in the books). and that’s why he was so successful at writing it, and why it read so honestly. So when I think ‘write what you know’ I apply it to universal/emotional truths.

    Or try to. I guess.

    (does any of this make sense? I have a sneaking suspicion… 🙂 ).

    But then I just realized the book I just drafted has a lot of what I’ve known in it.

    So… uhm.

    Oh, writing.

    PS: Your indignation about Dan’s New Yorker success is like MY indignation over Michael Patterson’s book sale in the comic strip, For Better or For Worse. Rage!

  3. “Write what you know” is bullshit. There would be no science fiction, no fantasy, not much of anything if it were true. (Of course, there would be fewer fairies.) “Write what you love” is better. Not perfect, but better.

  4. What might be bullshit for one person could be magic for someone else. As I said, I have a limited imagination, so I start from life and build from there. In the novel I’m writing now, the people are the kind of people I would have known, though I made them up. Names were borrowed, adjusted, and made new. There are two actual places transplanted from reality into a fictional town and a whole imagined world has sprung up around them. To start with the specifics, with what I can see, and invent from there… that’s my process. I’ve finally found and, more importantly, embraced what works for me. I think that’s a good thing.

  5. High school kid published in the New Yorker! Ugh, that’s infuriating!

    I have to agree with Courtney – write with the emotions you know, not necessarily just the experiences. Otherwise I wouldn’t have much to write about 😉

    I’m dealing with this right now too.

  6. i think too many people get upset with this concept. most think it’s some hard and fast rule of things to do/not do (like adverbs;)).

    i think that the key to this is ‘rule’ is something you already touched on by saying this:

    “I think my writing is more authentic and so much better when I’m writing something I have first-hand knowledge of.”

    i think ‘authenticity’ and ‘knowing’ are the keys and that the ‘rule’ itself is just a concept to help writers write more authentically when imagination isn’t quite working. in one sense ‘writing what you know’ allows a writer to not have to worry so much about the question, “will readers know i’m full of shit?”

    knowing, is the complicated part…

    In knowing, Da-sein gains a new perspective of being towards the world always already discovered in Da-sein.”

    don’t make me quote more heidegger.

    ps. can we boycott gossip girl now?

  7. further more, on the subject of fictional writers making me see bloody mattresses- they ALWAYS say “write what you know” as if this piece of advice is a special secret “only the real good writers know THAT one!” bit of advice…

    That would be like tuning in to any cop show where there is always a Grizzled Detective telling the Pretty Rookie “Hey, make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot!”

  8. I’m a closet Gossip Girl fan, but the whole NYer thing was pretty maddening. The scene with the PR editor made me laugh though–a macho idea of what authenticity is. I have no intention of doing the equivalent of getting a glass shot off my head, she said primly.

  9. First time visitor, via a Google on Stephen Millhauser interviews; great blog. I think everyone has to find their own process, their own balance. I write best about what I know best, too; there’s just so much texture and detail you can’t imagine, and it’s right there, free for the taking, in experience. But as one of my favorite authors said once about some of the techie stuff in his books- I’m paraphrasing, maybe badly, so I won’t credit him- it’s surprising sometimes how little you have to learn to write convincingly about what you don’t know.

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