Blog inspired by various speakers at Backspace Writers
Conference 2012 including Jessica Anya Blau, Jael McHenry, Lauren
Baratz-Logsted, and David Robbins, among others. Thanks for the advice and inspiration!
“Write what you know.”
writer has heard it. As a writing
teacher, I’m guilty of having said it to my students. It seems like such
logical advice. Of course one can write more convincingly about the experiences he has
had in life: the jobs he’s held, the places he’s visited, the crushing
relationships he’s started and ended.
But if you really think about it, what would books be like if writers
only wrote what they knew? To
start, there’d be no fantasy, no dystopian tales, no science fiction, so
good-bye Harry Potter, Hunger
Games, and Star Wars. Shades
of Grey would only exist if someone was
saucy enough to admit to living such a lifestyle. We’d know for sure Stephen King ought to be locked up in a padded room somewhere. Even realistic fiction would
vanish. Readers looking for a
story would be left only with memoirs.
“The human experience is universal.” – Jessica
course, most writing instructors telling their students to write what they know
probably had a less literal meaning in mind. In a more broad sense, most writers should and do write what
they know. They write about the
experiences we share as humans (or fantastical creatures with human
qualities). Writers take in the
world around them, experiencing life’s best and worst moments through close
observations of family, friends, coworkers, even people in the news. These observations, coupled with
writers’ own life experiences, give them an entry point. Imagination takes them the rest of the
“Find a seed, grow a flower.” – Jael McHenry
find seeds everywhere. Those seeds
are the small bits of truth, of knowledge, that they plant in a story to make
it believable, no matter how far from the reader’s reality the story may
be. Without those roots for
readers to grab hold of, they wouldn’t be able to suspend their disbelief in
the more fantastical or intense moments.
But stories can’t be just seeds.
Writers need to have the imagination and creativity to grow and develop
tales beyond what they themselves or their readers have experienced. None of us have twirled a twig and rid
our world of all evil, but all of us have had to experience the same
coming-of-age trials of self-discovery and acceptance that Harry and the trio
went through in the Potter series. Rowling made her young characters’
conflicts echo enough of our own experiences, that we were willing to tag along
in their world and not question it’s more outrageous details.
seed is what a writer knows.
Everyone has a bag of seeds in their back pocket, but most grow
dime-a-dozen dandelions that wouldn’t hold our attention for more than a second. A writer’s challenge is to take those
same seeds and grow a garden of flowers that readers can’t necessarily name and
can’t quite touch, but never want to leave.
never again tell my students to write what they know. But I will encourage them to be collectors of seeds, growers
of gardens, and reapers of fantastic and fantastical fiction.