Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Anyone who has ever taken a writing class has most likely received the same exact sage advise from the instructor: “Write what you know.”

This is typical advice given to new writing students who are struggling with finding their voices. The school of thought seems to believe that only through writing about what we have experienced is there any authenticity in the work. I disagree. I wrote what I knew for years only to find that it created a situation where I was mocked mercilessly and nearly gave up writing altogether.

Depending on our life experiences, what we know may not make for very good drama. What I knew was a whole lot of TV and books and I wrote what I enjoyed. Since I had not yet honed my ability to take moments and other things from life around me and integrate them into a completely unrelated story, what I drew from tended to be rather hackneyed in nature, if not always in execution.

Vampire hunter stories, tales of waking up in strange and unfamiliar environs, melodramatic science fiction stories about post-Apocalyptic Earth, and the list goes on. My best work during those creative writing class days tended to involve quirky characters and their dialogue. For instance, I wrote one that could have been a one act play involving three very different guys who find themselves in a Third World prison cell together. Another involved two lovable losers and their plot to kill George Bush senior with a hand grenade. This wasn’t anything I knew, it was simply based on observation of people society labels as “losers.”

“Write what you know” can be good advice for people who are already established in life with careers and families and some traveling under their belts. Tell attorney-cum-author John Grisham to write what he knows and he inundates us with legal thrillers, each more preposterous than the last until he creates a cottage industry. Tell a guy who works as a security guard to write what he knows and he may come back with a story about a security guard working the midnight shift in a warehouse that will know you on your ass. But tell a kid barely out of his teens to write what he knows and you will get back exactly what you requested.

Some instructors will tell you a certain amount of hackwork and amateurishness is not only expected but also encouraged in beginning writers. After all, how can one guide a fledgling writer into becoming the next literary savior if there is no foundation of failure?

To be honest, I’m not sure college instructors are supposed to serve that function. College professors tend to place so much emphasis on the mechanics of writing that they churn out writers with the same approach and sensibility time after time. The world of literature, that pristine and rarely read field of writing that is the only one most of them take seriously, has become saturated with writers trying to be the next JD Salinger or Ernie Hemmingway.

I see the college level creative writing instructor the same way I see the training department at my employer. Their function is to provide us with all the necessary tools and information to succeed and the rest is up to us. They aren’t there to tell us what to write or how to write or even what we should write. Sadly, most in academia have an inflated sense of their role in the formation of new writers. In that regard, they remind me of film critics who think their jobs are essential to the industry they criticize.

If I ever ran a writing workshop for beginning writers, I would assign them a task similar to one that was assigned to me in a journalism class. I would tell them to go home that night and start thinking about the people they knew, the places they frequent and the thoughts they have. I would instruct them to pay special attention to things that seemed to latch onto their minds for longer than a few seconds. I would tell them to imagine that thing or that person in a different situation from the one they were used to it being. Now, write me five pages about it and tell me the consequences or benefits of the different setting into the narrative of the story.

Instead of “Write what you know,” I would urge them to “Draw from what you know.” Make what you know the basis for what you write, not the whole thing. Yes, it’s great that you’re an attorney and have had some interesting cases, but how about placing that attorney in a whole different situation where his critical thinking skills become more important than his acumen in the court room?

Draw from what you know. Anything else is dishonest. Much like someone who directs TV commercials, you may dabble in the art but you won’t be creating any~


Priscilla said...

I had this idea for a book, I have many idea's for books then I just build them in my mind until I get bored with them, then I start a new book in my mind. It goes like this,

A good friend of mine is working for a prosecutor in Arizona, he is assigned to the sex crimes dept. He often calls or texts about his latest cases which upset me terribly, but I have to listen, cuz he's my friend and this shit bugs him too.

So here's the story, two law school friends go to work as lawyers shortly after passing the bar, one at the prosecutors office in sex crimes the dept, the other as a civil rights attorney. They talk about their cases etc. The civil rights attorney becomes so disheartened by her friends cases and the perps that get off easy, that she decides to murder them.

It's going to be very dark, she's going to be like a superhero type, it's going to be heavy in legal theories/drama...then there's the moral dilemma etc.

what you think ??

ca nadeau said...

Sounds like an interesting concept. I like the super-hero angle.

Althea said...

This is an interesting topic. I do think that my best pieces of writing (produced approximately two decades ago) had their foundations in imagination. And I love sci fi and fantasy genres which consists entirely of dreamed up worlds.

Damn you Christopher Paolini and you're ridiculously early talent and success as a writer! First draft at 15 years old! Kiss my ass son.

*ahem* I do think, if you want to write about something which actually does exist on this world here and now, it pays to research it in the form of reading and / or travel. However, if you've got a feel for a concept, and you know it, you should feel free to run with it.

American Guy said...

pris: i often come up with book ideas in my head only to realise that i'm unconsciously 'borrowing'.

Your idea (whether you intended it or not) is cross between 2 tv shows: Law&Order SVU and Dexter

ca nadeau said...

Most ideas are recycled from previous works. The important thing is to take what was done and make something new out of it.

Priscilla said...

american guy, I haven't seen svu or dexter...damn it all will be different because it will be from a womans perspective...and also I think I could come up with some new angles...what are your book ideas americano?

nads-there were some posts over on your old blog that reminded me of Vonnegut at times, but you put your own kooky spin on it, most of your stuff is pretty original though :)

ca nadeau said...

I don't let anyone tell me my ideas sound like something already out because I'm confident that 9 times out of 10 it will be unrecognizable by the time I'm through with it.

I am inspired for my next post.