Worst Writing Suggestion Ever
It’s rant day! How excited are you? I can only assume “very.”
Today, I’m going to weigh in on something in which I actually have some qualifications and expertise. While normally I’m just shooting off my opinion, as half or full-baked as it may be, this time I’m going to address a common writing saying. Everyone’s heard it, even if no one really knows who first coined it. It’s the sort of writing advice which would paralyze beginners and be brought up to defend questionable output or design instead of offering any help in furthering or improving its craft.
I am, of course, talking about “Write what you know.”
It seems so simple and innocuous on the surface. Clearly, if you write what you know then you’ll produce detailed and accurate events and characters. We’ve all experienced writing on a topic clearly well beyond the author’s grasp. Anyone with any background in the sciences needs to have a very good sense of humour whenever a movie or television show covers something remotely scientific. Computers fare no better and Hollywood’s vision of hacking is as quaint as it is inaccurate. Thus, if ignorant writing produces inauthentic material, clearly knowledgeable writing produces the opposite.
And this line of thinking is a trap. Writing isn’t some vaguely masked autobiographical account. Writers are not constrained by their own backgrounds and upbringings. Would this be the case, the entire literary field would be near obliterated. Speculative fiction would not exist. Even more offensive is when this adage is trotted out to defend discriminatory products. I’ve probably seen this tired saying more often in discourses questioning the lack of diversity in a piece of fiction than in any other circumstance. The argument, as it goes, is generally raised as a way to silence critics. “Clearly the author must have a male protagonist because he is a male himself. He doesn’t know what it is like to be a woman. If we want more female protagonists then we need more female writers.” This line, of course, extends to just about any minority or individual who would raise questions against the status quo.
I think it’s most telling that you hardly ever see writers themselves say this. And understandably so–if I were to hear an author echo this sentiment then I would consider it a self-confession of their own inability to perform the basic requirements of their craft and to out themselves as the sub-par and talentless hack that they must surely be. It’s an illogical and downright offensive kind of argument. It belittles the efforts of people in the field and, truly, insults the intelligence of its readership. Only a moments consideration reveals this nonsense for the extreme absurdity that it is. I mean, can we truly imagine a world where artists were constrained in such a binding manner. All works would be mono-gendered. One couldn’t write about a parent without actually having a child themselves. Every character would be employed in the same business and pretty much every book would be covering the anguishes of the writer and the turmoils of writer’s block. Clearly, I will never know what it is like to be a mother so I must surely be unable to write a mother at all in my stories. I’ve never had a twin, so that option is off the docket. And you can forget about having any character who doesn’t have a father that’s an alcoholic.
Clearly, this isn’t the intention of the defence but no matter how hard you try to scale it back it never, ever makes a lick of sense. Why should I not be allowed to write about Judaism or have a character who’s a Tibetan in my story because I’ve not been one? The stalwart defenders of this position would have you believe that the core experience of people from other backgrounds is wholly intrinsic to those experiences. It is, in essence, that being Asian is the entirety of one’s being and something impossible and inscrutable to those who are not one. Surely, a white person can not know all the struggles and minutia of the difficulties of a black person in growing up under a system of institutionalized racism and thus it is a topic which they can never weigh in on. It’s the worst possible argument because it almost sounds like it’s reasonable despite being completely idiotic. The argument supports the insidious idea that there is a “standard” or “normal” experience and that all minorities are exempt from it and majorities are likewise locked into it. Being white isn’t particularly fundamental to the vast majority of western characters since that is just the natural way of life. It’s once you change the colour of their skin or what-have-you that now suddenly they are some mythical “other” whose voice can only, truly, be captured by one who has walked this unique path.
Yes, I’ve mostly seen the “write what you” cliché when it crops up in minority discussions. And, just as I prefaced this rant, it’s ludicrous when you take a moment to consider it in its entirety. We’re not looking for stories solely filled with carbon copy men who have all had the exact same upbringing. If my experiences as a son can allow me to infer what it was like for my mother to raise me and draw that as inspiration for a character, then surely I can apply my experiences as a white person and infer the differences and challenges which someone of a different skin colour would experience. Ultimately, this is the work of an author. In fact, self-insertion is considered probably the worst form of writing that one can do. The Mary-Sue is a derided concept for a reason. And the fact I must write a rant upon this subject is almost depressing. There’s as long a history as it is proud of authors writing well beyond what they could possibly know. There’s George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales… I mean I could go on and on and it’s patently ridiculous to think that anyone would consider stories from a perspective not your own as unachievable.
Let’s face it, it’s an excuse and nothing more. It’s held up as some sort of codified artistic creed to forgive the fact that there is a lot of lazy writing floating throughout time. If an author truly felt that they could not cover an experience beyond their own because they so feared creating an offensive stereotype, then how are we to be assured that what they are writing now isn’t riddled with clichéd stereotypes?
The true adage which a writer should hold is not “Write what you know” but “Know what you write.”
If you’re going to create a character that steps outside your own experience, you don’t throw up your hands and claim it’s an impossibility. You do that far worse word–research. If I want to explore the hardships of a minority living a life of oppression, I should investigate what that life would be like. I should read up about institutionalized discrimination. I should interview or find interviews with said people. We live in the Information Age–for crying out loud–getting a deeper understanding of experiences beyond our own has never been easier.
But more than that, an author should be aware of what their work is communicating. I know everyone’s probably tired of me ragging on Name of the Wind but like I said in my original piece, I don’t believe that Rothfuss is a misogynist. He simply fell into the trap of not being aware exactly the context of his words. I believe he didn’t include a well developed female character–not because he doesn’t believe that women can’t be equal or powerful–but simply because he didn’t think of it at all. He probably also failed to recognize that every single one of his female characters served singularly sexual needs for other male characters. He likely got trapped in his own perspective and wrote a little too much about what he knows.
So, when going over your words and considering the characters and situations you’ve created, it’s imperative that as a responsible writer you come at it with just as critical an eye as critic. You’re not being judged solely on your apparent knowledge of magic, science, social organization or espionage but on the prevalent themes and motifs you cover as well as how your work fits into the paradigm of your times. If you don’t know what you’re truly writing, then you are the writer that needs to hone your craft. And the first step is probably to start learning some of that stuff that you don’t know.