I had a conversation with a writer friend over coffee the other day. This writer friend is rather new to writing, or at least new to taking her writing seriously. The conversation went a bit like this:
Me: This manuscript I'm working on is requiring a crap ton of research. I even bought a Groupon for sailing lessons.
Me: Because I know very little about sailing. I've been like twice but both times, someone else did all the work.
Friend: But how can you write about something you don't know about?
Me: I write fiction.
Friend: I know that, but aren't you supposed to "write what you know?"
I took a sip of my coffee and tried not to go ballistic on my well-meaning pal who obviously hasn't heard my lecture yet. And then I dug in...
This is a little tidbit of writerly advice, an adage that we see from time to time, either on a syllabus in a creative writing workshop or perhaps on a bumper sticker or some other place where such proverbs are espoused. The problem I have with it is that it is wrong.
Okay, maybe not wrong but almost always misconstrued and/or taken too literally.
I maintain that "what you know" doesn't mean that you can only write about things you've literally experienced. If that were the case, there would be no Hogwarts. No Clifford the Big Red Dog (much to the dismay of my 2 yo). No hobbits. No Katniss. No Gatsby. No Etienne St. Clair.
So when my well-meaning students or writer friends ask me why I'm so opposed to this (you'd think I was rejecting/editing a book of the bible!) I always ask them this question: Why does one (presumably you) write?
Do you write to impart the answer? Or do you write to explore questions-- questions in your own mind but also in the mind of your would-be readers?
For me, the mark of good fiction is that its chief concern is engaging a reader wherever the reader is at. Truth be told, as a writer that is the scary part of writing. Once someone else reads your work, you lose ownership of it as it is now open to interpretation of another person-- a person who will bring his/her own worldview to the reading. It's terrifying and exhilarating, in equal measure. But I digress.
I read for an agent and the number one "pass" button presser, especially where young adult fiction is concerned, is something like, "I wrote this to teach kids a lesson." Sometimes it's more cleverly worded than that, but you get the gist. Someone thinks he or she has a profound insight to share with the world or impress upon children. And maybe the writer does. The problem is when your primary aim is to teach, it is nearly impossible to focus on the story and you almost certainly lose the magic.
And readers (young adults are a particularly savvy bunch) will smell your agenda from MILES away. And here's the thing, the great paradox of fiction: even if this message you have to impart is something your learned because your story really happened to you (say, you served in Iraq and learned firsthand the horrors of war), if your agenda is at the forefront the story will ring false.
I know! How can something true be false? Like I said, the paradox of fiction.
I'm not saying that fiction CANNOT teach the reader something about the world but I am saying that it is not the job of the writer to do that. Rather, the writer's job is to get the reader to engage with the characters and world and discover answers for him or herself.
It's the difference between teaching someone HOW to think vs. teaching someone WHAT to think.
Further, when a writer sits down to work on a manuscript, it's not as if he or she has ALL THE ANSWERS. In fact, one of the great joys of writing is that we, as writers, can learn things from our characters, too. The surprise is one of the best parts.
And so how does fiction do this? By appealing to readers on a level of emotional truth, one that transcends worlds and languages and time periods. That's why we can glean so much about our own world or even our own lives from reading a book like The Once and Future King. Or Sense and Sensibility. Or The Hunger Games. Or The Things They Carried. Or The Fault in Our Stars.
Is there a place for realistic, true-to-how-it-happened literature? You bet. But it's not called fiction. It's called Memoir/ personal essay/ true crime/ biography. There is absolutely worth in those stories, the true happenings of this world-- it's past and present. But readers come to those narratives with a different set of expectations.
I would argue that somewhere between a fact and a lie sits fiction, which, though not actually true, can hold a truth deeper than the truth itself. It's a mystery and a wonder and if you must know, the reason that I ADORE fiction.
Just today I was reading a headline in the "paper" and caught myself wondering how this would all play out and whether I should look to The Handmaid's Tale to find out. Margaret Atwood's speculative tale takes place in an imagined future where women are basically categorized by their place on the fertility spectrum. The parallels between the book and our current political state are certainly up for debate, but personally I can't help but notice some similarities. Does Atwood have a crystal ball that allowed her to predict things that would come to pass? No. At least, I doubt it. But does she have the ability to observe the world around her, draw from things she knows to reveal an emotional truth that resonates with readers who've never actually lived in the Republic of Gilead?
Yeah, buddy. And, in my opinion, that is what it means to "write what you know."