Is it “Write what you know,” or “Write to discover what you know”?
Acclaimed author Gordon McAlpine explores this question, drawing from his experience writing the Edgar nominated novel, Woman with a Blue Pencil.
Thanks Flannery O’Connor, Thanks Dad
All students of writing fiction are familiar with the dictum to “write what you know”; I have always regarded this advice with ambivalence. For some, it provides important license to draw from actual experience, suggesting, not inaccurately, that each of our lives is characterized by meaningful elements that could make for a compelling story. All to the good. However, the flip side to this advice is an implication that one ought to write only what one knows, to ignore or avoid uncharted territory accessible exclusively through the exercise of imagination, often in combination with research to make the imagined feel real. For me, then, a better precept for writing a work of fiction is this simple thought experiment: if I were browsing in a bookstore, what as-yet unwritten book would I wish to come upon to read? This simple ground rule, I believe, incorporates the most valid element of “writing what one knows” — specifically, the natural impulse toward stories that reflect upon our own lives, whether or not we consciously understand why – without limiting imaginative possibilities My own work has been undertaken under these general guidelines. That is, I’ve begun new stories or novels simply because I wanted to create the precise reading that most interested me at any given time. This provides the act of writing (which consists, day after day, of being alone in a small room) with a sustaining tie to the boundlessness of reading, discovered wondrously as a child and no less powerful now as an adult. Write what one knows? Rather, write the book you’d like to read, which will never exist unless you write it. Simple enough.
Or, perhaps not so simple.
My books have been set in Paris in the ‘20’s, Chicago in the 30’s, Los Angeles in the ‘40’s, New York in the ‘50’s….nonetheless, these books, undertaken as acts of imagination rather than disguised memoir, have all, eventually, revealed themselves to me as autobiographical in sly, unplanned ways. This revelation usually comes about 2/3 through the first draft. This is not to say the books are ever overtly autobiographical. Rather, elements that comment on my own life or the lives of those I know deliver themselves in indirect ways. It turns out, then, that, despite my protestations, perhaps I write “what I know”, after all. Or, at least, what I come to know through the process of writing….
I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor, who said, “I write to discover what I know.”
Write what you know or write to discover what you know?
I’m with Flannery on this one.