my apologies – and write what you don’t know.

to Dorothea, for not updating my link to her weblog in my sidebar. tonight, I hope, and until then this will do for me, at least. (thank goodness she is well linked by others!)

and speaking of Dorothea, yesterday’s entry about writing & school, and the entry it linked to (primarily about being an American, but with a long interesting tangent into the teaching of creative writing), reminded me of a rant that rattles around in the back of my head from time to time. as did Dorothea’s comments about Americans and fantasy writing.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, and I’m gonna go overboard on this point – we will be reeled back in, eventually.

“Write what you know”? Wrong.

My experience in high school English and college writing courses demonstrates that most people, even fairly creative ones, take that too damn literally. Stories about the deaths of grandparents, the beginnings and ends of relationships, the (often petty) anxieties of young adulthood: those are the results. And “write what you know” gets combined with the idea of “art as therapy” to create the scene that is described thus:

I remember when I was given it [a writing exercise] in my first writing class. It caused me to write something that embarrasses the hell out of me. I remember watching other students break down and cry as they read their papers. A prompt like this forces a student to confront loss, place it into a suitably artful skin, and satisfy the voyeuristic desires of the teacher. It avoids the issue of how to write, focusing on issues of self-disclosure and how to craft compelling images to prove your creativity to the teacher instead.

And I disagree with the author of that passage – it’s not perfect for a creative writing class either. Just because it makes you cry doesn’t mean it will make someone who doesn’t know you cry. (Natalie Goldberg actually has a pretty good chapter on that topic.)

All classic literature leaps away from the experience of its author to some extent, whether in the characters or the setting or the scenario that drives them. Imagination and research are as important and useful as lived experience.

What if? What if you found yourself in a world entirely alien? What if you fell in love with the wrong person? What if you became a dragon, or found a dead body that later disappeared, or lost your soul? (all stories that I’ve read & enjoyed, by people I know) And what if that you were older, younger, smarter, more foolish, a different gender, bigger, smaller, a different social class…..

C says sometimes that all writers should try gaming (role-playing, not gambling!), and I’m inclined to agree. it doesn’t fit all temperments, but as a writer, I’ve learned more about story-telling from creating characters in a world and having to play them out as they are. (wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment for a fiction class.) also from creating that world for my players and seeing what they did with it. (oh, the pig-farmers of Tabor….)

the “bones” of good creative writing, to use Jeff’s conceit, is the telling of the story…this is the craft of writing, as LeGuin put it in Steering the Craft, which I’d recommend as a fabulous counterpoint to Writing Down the Bones. if your words aren’t well-assembled for communicating the story: the characters, the setting, the action, and the emotion, then you’ve failed, even if you’re writing something you know intimately. and if you’ve got it down, then you can imagine worlds and characters that never were, and your readers (don’t forget, it’s all about the reader, not the writer) will happily follow along.

then, writing what you know means being able to include your knowledge and lived experience, bringing your observations to bear, finding a true detail that fits perfectly. and if you don’t know, then you research or imagine. but I’d never give up trying to write something just because I’ve never done (or been) it. Great exercise I did last week: write from the POV of someone you don’t like or understand. every writer should try it.