Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Write what you know = betrayal of imagination

I've probably ranted about this before, so you'll have to forgive me if seems like repetition, but one comment at the TAPS continuing drama workshop over the weekend is still rankling. One of the speakers suggested that emerging scribes should concentrate on writing what they know. That you shouldn't write a hostage story, for example, unless you've been held hostage. The speaker in question was trying to be helpful and in all other respects seemed an intelligent, passionate individual committed to making TV drama as good as it can be.

But I couldn't disagree with them more when it comes to only writing what you know. To me that's the ultimate betrayal of imagination, the worst kind of advice for people trying to find their way as creative individuals, to find their unique voice as writers. Let's face it, if you only write what you know, we would only ever read stories about the lives and experiences of writers. Surely we can be allowed to imagine? Yes, writing should have emotional truth at its heart.

But if you apply the write what you know philosophy, you straitjacket the writer. I've never been to space, so I can't write science fiction. I've never fired a gun, I've never murdered anyone, so that's crime gone as a genre. I've never had children, so I can never write about being a parent. I've never been a woman, or Jewish, or a soldier, or black, or Asian, or Oriental. I've never been to the future, I wasn't alive before the twentieth century.

I've never been to Japan or Pearl Harbour or San Francisco. I've never travelled through space and time, never beaten a person to death with my fists, never staked a vampire through the heart. If I'd only ever written when I knew, I wouldn't have a career. Wouldn't have 18 novels published, or a radio play broadcast.

So please, if somebody tells you only write what you know, ask them what they've written. Had they experienced everything they've written about? If so, they've lived one hell of a life or else they don't practise what they preach. Write what you know? No thanks. I'd like to use what talents and skills I've got to write something I didn't know I could. I like to imagine, as well as know.


Stuart Perry said...

Not just a betrayal of imagination, but a betrayal of the writer's capacity to learn and research too.

Did you see Lucy's recent post about responsibilities of writers, and the debate that followed in the comments? If not, it's worth a read, and touchs on what you've written here. Should one write, for example, about a rape if one has not been raped? I'd say: yes, as long as you've found out everything you can about the subject, and you don't propogate any untruths.

I think that people spout 'write what you know' without thinking about exactly what they mean. 'Search the world around you, search yourself, and write what matters to you' - that seems better, but isn't as snappy, obviously.

John Soanes said...

Couldn't agree more - I fear the 'write what you know' idea is partly responsible for the excessive number of novels starring writers who are wrestling with writer's block.
I think it's fine to write about 'what you know' in terms of patterns of behaviour and reaction and people generally, but otherwise, I think the line in the final (?) issue of Sandman, where Neil Gaiman has Shakespeare say "all that's required to write about people is to be a person", applies.

Lucy said...

I think "write what you know" is a load of bollox too David, as you know. As for snappier titles, I'd go with "write what you FEEL" on the basis that you can have A FEEL (oo er) for any story and/or genre. I have a feel for horror and crime and for stories about redemption, responsibility and living up to who you "really" are; you have a feel for science fiction and stories of twarted love and conspiracy. HOW those "feels" play out (double oo er) depends on you and your own personality, so maybe that's what some of these guys mean about "write what you know".

Stuart - I disagree that you *can't* write about rape if you haven't been raped by the way, though Oli's assertion was appreciated in the "girl power" camps I'm sure... I get irked by irresponsible representations of rape (ie. if you girlies let us rape you, you'd like it really) as opposed to rape as a story. Some very good films have had this at their heart - THE ACCUSED is one example and in the 80s, really did raise the profile of this crime as something heinous and NOT the victim's fault. Done well and responsibly, movies can be a really important platform for debate.

Stuart Perry said...

I didn't intend to attribute that thought to you directly, Lucy. I agree that if done responsibly, and truthfully, there's pretty much nothing that can't be written about.

As a reader, I'd imagine you see lots of horrible scripts about people who are struggling to become writers or filmmakers. If we're looking for a snappy sound bite, perhaps it should be: *Don't* write what you know.

Lucy said...

Oh, DON'T! Since Adaptation came out I have so many about screenwriters living in fantasy lands etc that I wanna SCREAM! That's not to say it *can't* work, it can, but it's the long Wonder Years style voice-overs that don't go anywhere that REALLY get to a Reader ; )

Anonymous said...

I totally agree David, it irks me also when I hear that advice. I write sci-fi, my radio play was set in 1938 and I haven't been in space nor was I alive back then.

I'm pretty certain we never had that advice given out at the Screen Academy. With good reason.

Research 'til you go cross-eyed reading or just plain make it up, or a mixture of the two but whatever write a great story and you can take an audience anywhere.

If we didn't have great imaginations we'd still all be sitting up trees eating berries.

And if we only ever wrote what we knew then logically Middle Earth would exist and I'd go there for my holidays.


Jason Arnopp said...

Oh God, that dreaded 'responsibility' word has leaked into these comments too. Help!

Stephen King has to be one of the world's leading proponents of WWYK - how many of his protagonists are writers? The only thing I'd say, is that WWYK is good in moderation. For instance, if you'd worked as a factory manager, chances are that your factual depiction of a factory manager character would be nicely accurate. Of course, he can then be Oriental, fire a gun, beat people to death with his fists and go to San Francisco.

Funnily enough, I haven't written a journalist character in any screenplay yet. But I probably will soon.

potdoll said...

I heard you HAD been a woman Mr Davina Bishop!

Jon Peacey said...

I would suggest method-writing. If actors can do it, writers should be allowed. I doubt what people emote changes through time. Write what you FEEL indeed… anger, pain, joy, sadness and so on.

Jason- I was just about to say Stephen King! You pipped me! The other one that irks me is the number of biographical films about artists, composers, novelists, etc. detailing how terribly hard their life and struggles against an indifferent world and various creative blocks are. It’s screenwriters complaining at one place removed. With pretensions.

English Dave said...

This kind of crap really annoys me too. Like Donald Rumsden says, there are known knowns and unknown knowns and knowns that are unknown .... or something.

My view of 'write what you know' is take whatever scenario you have created and use your own emotional experiences to guide you through the characterisations.

It's got NOWT to do with the subject matter. If that needs research then do the research. Totally different thing.

David Bishop said...

What English Dave just said. Seconded.

Oli said...

Jane Espenson essentially says the same thing as English Dave does here.

Write what's true for you emotionally. On a spaceship.

Jim Campbell said...

Belated agreement from this corner.

I feel that this sentiment - pushed to its logical conclusion - springs from the same school of thought that asserts that all things fantastical are intrinsically less 'literary' than those that are more grounded in what is interpreted as 'real life'.

At the end of this particular argument is the conclusion that any given episode of Eastenders has more literary merit than A Mid-Summer Night's Dream.

Today's entertaining game is to find any exponent of this argument and put to them the suggestion that MND is fantasy, or that 1984 is science fiction, and then watch them attempt to either argue that these works are not capital-L literature, or to move the goalposts of entire genres so as to reclassify the works in question.

Well, it amuses me, anyway.