Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 1: Write What You Know.

You hear it all the time at writer’s workshops: write what you know.
I don’t believe a word of it. Writing about what you know about seems to me a recipe for repetition and stagnation.
 Instead, write what you want to know. The best writers are inherently curious, always seeking—through reading or travel or whatever—to learn something new. You could call it research. And those new things, whether sought out deliberately or stumbled upon by serendipity, often find their way into a story, a song, a poem, or a book—usually after considerably more research and curiosity.
Now, this is not to say you shouldn’t develop some mastery of the subject—know it, in other words—before you write about it. For one thing, readers who do know can spot a phony from afar. For another, writers owe readers a heaping helping of honesty, truth, and reality along with entertainment. And that’s true whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, essays or songs, movies or magazine articles.
Texas poet Larry D. Thomas would never have imagined The Goatherd had he not been curious about what life might have been like for a man who tended goats in long-ago Texas. Michael Zimmer would not have written the outstanding novel Beneath a Hunter’s Moon had he not wondered about the somewhat obscure M├ętis and their ways. We would not have South Pass had Will Bagley not set out to discover the finer points of exploration and emigrant travel over the Continental Divide’s easiest crossing. And so on.
Don’t let your writing be limited by the limits of your knowledge by believing the lie that you should write what you know. Learn something new. Then, you’ll come to know what you write—and so will your readers.

12 comments:

  1. I don't disagree, Rod, but from a commercial perspective, it's a little more complicated.--Gary Goldstein, Editorial Director, Kensington Books

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    1. Thanks, Gary. I don't do complicated very well, being simple-minded and all.

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  2. Great post, Rod --Dick Vaughan

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  3. Thought-provoking article, Rod. Yet another caveat is that you can sometimes write about something you don't "know" as long as you don't pretend to know it. Sometimes writing about something from a fresh perspective...with "new eye's"...can be very interesting. Keep'em coming!

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    1. Absolutely right, Jim. "New" is almost always refreshing.

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  4. Good insight for all of us, Rod. Some of my best story ideas are those I stumbled on. I love that 'Aha moment' when you think 'really?' 'I never knew that.' That's when that thing inside your head says take a deeper dive and off you go on some new adventure. The only problem is those ideas don't come along every day. It would be nice if you could come up with a systematic way to find them. Random stumbling seems so inefficient and it is. Such is the nature of the creative process.

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    1. For me, Paul, "random stumbling" IS an everyday occurrence. Inefficient, certainly, but if it were easy....

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  5. Key word, "serendipity," Rod. Just yesterday I needed to know when Listerine was first compounded (1903) to ensure that the protagonist of my novel, set in 1938, might credibly swallow some before a first date. Well, come to find out, the damned stuff was once advertised as a cure for STDs and dandruff as well. My book is richer for the smell now of mouthwash in the night. Take care, buddy.

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    1. Great story, John. What we "don't know" can make all our stories richer, I think.

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