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~