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Write what you want to know

When Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. arrived at my alma mater to give a talk and take part in a few workshops, a friend of mine named Seth was tasked with making him feel welcome. Over lunch at the Bull Run Inn, the local sit-down eatery, Seth asked Vonnegut about the time-honored adage, “Write what you know.”

Vonnegut responded with fervor: “That’s an egotistical question,” he told my friend. This nonplussed and embarrassed my friend, who had received this instruction many a time.

Seth and I agreed that Vonnegut had lost patience with this platitude over the years. But it must go deeper than that. Consider Vonnegut’s oeuvre:

  • In Cat’s Cradle, all the world’s oceans, rivers and seas freeze owing to exposure to “ice-nine,” killing all but a handful of creatures on earth.
  • In Galapagos, the human race meets extinction, save a handful on the island of Santa Rosalia, who evolve into a species resembling seals.
  • In Amageddon in Retrospect…well, you get the idea.

I don’t want to go out on a limb here, but I bet Vonnegut never experienced any of these things. No wonder he took issue with the “write what you know” dictum. He wrote of things no one could possibly know about. Yet millions love his workSo should we all write what we know? Or should we all write what we don’t know?

Let’s take a step back. Who said this darn thing, anyway? Some people attribute the “write what you know” dictum to Samuel Clemens in the book Tom Sawyer. No surprise here, either, as Clemens often wrote about locales and populations he had experienced, but many had not. Clemens had a special slant on life, drawing on his experiences to create works that caught the imagination of the public.

So which writer nailed it?

If we reconsider, we see that both wrote about what they cared about. Vonnegut, who witnessed carnage during World War Two, did draw on his feelings about that experience to create works that captivated the imagination; Clemens felt inspired by the people he met in various rustic settings.The truth of a story may lie in emotion. Remember what writer, professor and political activist Elie Weisel said: “Some stories are true that never happened.”.

Some stories are true that never happened.

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~Elie Weisel

Or stand the maxim on its head: Know what you write. Don’t forget about research as a great way bridge the gap between knowledge and imagination, of getting to know that thing you wish to write about. Consider Peter James, who does extensive research into police procedures, accompanying detectives to the police station, on patrol, on raids, and to crime scenes, for his bestsellers.

He put it this way:

The answer is simple. Think about how many hundreds of thousands of police officers there are, many of whom read fiction, and will be among your potential readers. Get their world right, and you might have a fan for life. Get it wrong and you’ll be in the trash can. You need an inside-out knowledge of anything you write about. Readers will be able to tell if you don’t have it.

I spent an entire day this year doing a 12-hour shift as a garbage collector in Brighton. Damned hard work, but it has helped me develop a wonderful character—and invaluable insight for a crucial scene in my next book.

Do mountains of research into a subject you enjoy – one that you want to know about. Follow your interest, and learn. You can take your readers with you on a journey of discovery. Once you have amassed peaks and promontories and foothills of facts, you will find that they speak to you, make suggestions, whisper ideas for the form and substance of your work. As Michelangelo said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

~Michelangelo

Another tactic: Expand the definition of “what you know.” Don’t leave this one out. Make sure that do know the genre you mean to write. Do you read mysteries? Write one of those it you feel the urge. Do you read science fiction? Romance? Mainstream? Write that. That genre is what you know. As Saul Bellow said: “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

So you may write about what you know. If it suits your fancy. But don’t treat it as a dictum.

 

A writer is a reader moved to emulation.

 

~Saul Bellow

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