I was in a meeting recently with the editorial team for a small literary magazine. “Work,” our fiction editor said, “I hate it when characters don’t have to go to work.” We were drafting submission guidelines for our fast-approaching reading period. We all chuckled. “All characters must go to work” fits strangely alongside a discussion of simultaneous submission.
But I think what my colleague was saying speaks to a broader conversation in the world of fiction. Work is a huge part of our lives and it should be an essential component of a believable character. Writers should be addressing things that happen to everyone, like work and grief and personal growth.
But a collection of writers encouraged to “write what they know” is in serious danger of generating manuscript after manuscript about writers. A whole body of literature about writers battling writer challenges; how dull.
“Write what you know” is tried and true advice, it works. And yet, strong writing seems to require a good deal more than we know.
The argument against writing what you know is made brightly in Bret Anthony Johnston’s 2011 article for The Atlantic, “Don’t Write What You Know”. Johnston’s essay has become required reading for aspiring authors and student writers because it encourages us to engage in active exploration as we create fiction.
“Writers may enter their stories through literal experience, through the ground floor, but fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.”
Johnston describes his personal experiences as scaffolding that allows for the construction of the story, but is carried away piece by piece afterward. “Write what you know” is an oversimplification of the process by which we write.
Recently, Ben Yagoda took up the question of writing what you know in his blog for the New York Times. Yagoda allows for a stronger presence of the writer’s experience in writing; “Writers who are intimately familiar with their subject produce more knowing, confident and, as a result, stronger results.”
How often do we hear ourselves saying in workshops, “You really knew the world you created for us,” or “I felt I was in good hands.” As readers, we want writers to have a thorough understanding of where we are going. But do we really care how they gather that knowledge?
When Ann Patchett hands me the world of research biologists in State of Wonder, or an Opera Singer in Bel Canto, I am entranced. She transports me into a professional world rich with material and discovery. As a writer, Patchett is venturing far beyond what she knows.
But I think Johnston and Yagoda would agree that there is an element to both novels that Ann Patchett knows very well; the human relationships, the capacity to empathize with strangers, the ability of humanity to transgress cultural borders and the value of learning something new in order to write a successful novel. Ann Patchett is skilled when it comes to rolling emotional experiences into a new world created through meticulous research.
Research might be an important part of the “write what you know” adage. Our experience doesn’t need to be limited to our experiences in the physical world. Every time we pick up a novel, we are conducting a form of research, we are adding to our catalog of experiences, we’re learning about the world beyond our experiences, and we are identifying with the interior framework of stories, the role of empathy and shared humanity that exists in all genres, all subjects.
When Ann Patchett travels to the amazon to research a novel, she’s seeking out the experience that makes her more able to “write what [she] knows.”
Writing requires letting our minds sprawl into unknown and unforeseen territories. We can’t limit ourselves to what we know. Instead, be open to what you want to know, what your characters know, and the great body of experiences some other writer before you has known.
So sure, send your characters to work. Make them writers if you want to, or booksellers or publishers, if you want to maintain a connection to the literary life. But reach further if you need to, if your writing asks you to. Use what you know to guide you towards what you don’t, and no one will ask too many questions about it later.