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Opinion: Write What You Know – Or Know What You Write?

Opinion: Write What You Know – Or Know What You Write?

US indie author Kathryn Guare provides a spirited and heartfelt response to Dr Carol Cooper’s recent post in our Writing strand on the theme of “Write What You Know”.

Photo of the self-published author Kathryn GuareThe exhortation to “write what you know” is such a pervasive axiom that it could be stitched into a sampler and mounted on the wall of creative writing classrooms everywhere, like a stern reminder of a moral obligation.

I frankly wish it would go away, not because the premise itself is wrong, but because without context and explanation it is too simplistic to be helpful, is often misinterpreted, and can have a chilling effect on the imagination of aspiring writers.

When – and When Not – to Apply the Rule

At the most basic level of misinterpretation, the advice is taken to mean that unless you’re an expert through training and/or experience, you shouldn’t write about it, because you can’t hope to put it across as capably as someone with the requisite skills. If I’m writing a non-fiction book about the best way to build a garden shed, I heartily agree, but if I’m writing fiction and drawing inspiration from the mysterious, unexplained depths of my imagination, I think it’s poppycock.

One of the most memorable and compelling books I’ve read in the last few years is Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The book takes place over several hours on the US Thanksgiving holiday, during which a decorated company of active-duty soliders are essentially paraded out as propaganda during a football halftime show, before being sent back to Iraq. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, despite the fact that Ben Fountain had not been in Iraq, had not been in any war, had not even been in the military. In the same year, The Yellow Birds, written by Kevin Powers, was also a finalist for the award. It follows one soldier through his experience in Iraq and the challenge of returning home after it. Powers had been stationed in Iraq for two years with the US Army.

In a New York Times piece, both authors were interviewed, and Fountain expressed his own lingering doubt that he even “had the right” to create the story he did. The response from Kevin Powers was as follows: “I think Ben’s obvious conscientiousness with regard to the seriousness of the subject matter is probably a not insignificant reason why Billy Lynn is so good. There seems to be a correlation between this attitude and good, true art that is far more useful as a metric than whether or not experience equals any kind of authority in artistic expression, which for the record I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.”

Know What You Write

That, in a gracious, beautifully expressed nutshell, is the true moral obligation for a writer – not to “write what you know” but to “know what you write”, and respect it. Some will write from their own background and experience, perhaps because they are working out their own salvation, or simply because they have a rich cache of stories to tell. Others will find themselves struck by an emotion, which leads to inspiration and then to an idea and on to a developed story, all drawn from something completely outside the realm of their own experience.

Both paths are valid, and both can lead to a work of quality if the writer understands what s/he is doing, has done the work to ensure it is true and honest, and has the skill to express it in a way that will move the reader. Sounds like a lot of effort? A lot of research, careful observation and empathic listening? Yeah, you’re damned right. It is.

  • If you’d like to read the great post that triggered Kathryn’s response, and many other fascinating and thoughtful comments, you’ll find it here: Write What You Know.

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Kathryn Guare

Kathryn Guare spent ten years working with a global health advocacy organization and has travelled extensively in Europe and India. Her first novel, "Deceptive Cadence", was recently awarded a Finalist Medal for Best Action Adventure in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Both her novels are available worldwide, and she is currently working on her third. Find out more about Kathryn Guare at her author website www.kathrynguare.com.

This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. I wonder if it’s possible for a novelist to ‘know too much.’ I mean that in many cases a writer who has delved into an area that is interesting in itself then becomes obsessed with planting his or her research into the plot. I am thinking now of Donna Tartt’s recent novel (see my review on Amazon) as well as others closer to home that I’ve recently read and prefer not to name. This planting of research, intended to convince, often has the reverse effect.

  2. Kathryn,

    I absolutely agree that both points are valid. I even have to research when writing about my own experiences to be sure I’m getting the facts, dates, details right.

    On the other hand, we certainly can’t wait until we’ve fully lived an experience before we craft a story we’ve been inspired to write.

    Thanks for your wise take on this issue.

  3. Yes: one writer I slightly know, and whose integrity in writing I admire, said to me ‘Is your true emotion in this work?” to which I replied that I supposed it was, though it was certainly not my true life story, (which I would not write!) I remember a time when I felt there were far too many novels which featured writers, artists, journalists, PR people, advertising executives, and teachers … I am not any of these, but also there are so many other backgrounds people have which can be interesting to learn about in a story, as the backdrop of the plot. Even though people in those professions may well be the most likely to write … There is always something you ‘know’ in a piece of writing, but it can be anything – location, besides job, state of mind, kind of family, etc … and there is the research side. And for crime writers there is a lot of research … or there is … dare one think?!
    And fantasy is another ball game – though I personally think that fantasy is quite a challenge, and needs a fair amount of techie or science or historical … etc … knowledge in order to have a truly authentic ring – eg Tolkien’s knowledge of myth, and of their styles and languages.

    1. I’ve thought that myself about fantasy writing, Clare. I can’t even imagine the skill, creativity and massive amount of research it must take to write in that genre.

  4. The original “Write What You Know” post was OK, but Guare seems to have provided more nuance to that issue. To my knowledge — though I could be wrong — Patricia Cornwell has never murdered someone. Writing what you know is actually a reference to internal knowledge, not external.

    1. Thanks Keefer. I also just want to be sure to say that I don’t disagree with Carol’s post either. Writers who are drawing from a reservoir of experience and hard-won expertise provide a unique perspective and if they are good at their craft the result can be compelling in a way that’s different from the writer who comes at the topic from a different place (such as the examples I gave).

  5. Hello Kathryn: I believe in basic research that will allow the author to write authentically without foolish errors. Correct content is vital to the story, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The manner of expression and conviction of the author will carry the reader forward. The worst turnoff for a reader is a lack of professional procedure in a police centered novel, that may lead to a low review. The same is to be said for non-fiction. Research before writing is the best way to “Know what you write.”

    I wish you much success…

    Warren,

    1. Yes, I think that captures the crux of it, Warren. Researching some of the topics I’m writing about is part of the pleasure of writing for me. I think it also helps to cultivate a network of people with expertise in areas where mine is lacking. I write suspense/thrillers and am pretty uninformed (and not all that interested) in gadgetry and procedure, so they don’t play a large role in my books, but I have a few people to call upon when a reference is needed for something I don’t properly understand. I do think those who write more procedural-style novels shoulder a greater responsibility because methods and tools are fundamental ingredients in those stories and often take precedence over deep character development, so it’s doubly important that they have some imprimatur of authenticity.

  6. Sound comment, Kathryn. TS Eliot didn’t need to climb the Rockies to write his Choruses from The Rock. If he’d been sent up Everest he probably couldn’t have written a word about the experience.

    1. Great point, David! And it’s funny you mention mountain climbing as an analogy. In the first book I published, I had a scene where the characters “drove in” to a town in Jammu/Kashmir, and it took me a while to realize that the actual town is at the top of a 1,000-foot mountain shelf! Having barely dodged that embarrassment, I then spent the better part of a day watching YouTube videos of people driving up the winding mountain road to Gulmarg!

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