It’s one of those creative writing canards that lazy teachers drum into would-be writers:
Write what you know.
I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t really care what you know.
Why not just send me your diary instead?
Oh, and I don’t care what you did on your summer holidays, either.
Remember those essays from your schooldays? When I was asked to write the traditional essay on returning to school in long-distant and ill-remembered Septembers, I’m sure I couldn’t care myself what I had done on my summer holidays. I certainly didn’t believe anyone else cared.
The upshot of the ‘write what you know’ school of creative writing tuition is a bucket load of autobiographical stories and novels about growing up and first love and losing your virginity and all sorts of ‘David Copperfield kind of crap’ – as Salinger puts it at the start of Catcher in the Rye.
Let’s face it, the chances are that I know as much as you do about most of the things that are going to interest me. Really.
What you feel about those things, however, is a different matter altogether.
Now you’re talking. If you can make me see the things with which I’m familiar in a different light, you’ll capture my attention.
I don’t want to feel I’m being educated. I want to be moved and to have my perceptions shifted.
Lloyd George Knew My Father
When I spent a year of my late teens reading nothing but Joyce, it wasn’t to learn Dublin’s street layout or to better understand the education system of the middle classes in late 19th century Ireland.
Nor was I that interested in learning how to masturbate among the rocks on a beach (see the ‘Nausicaa’ episode in Ulysses). Truth be told, at that age, I felt I could hold my own (fnaar fnaar) when it came to wanking in a wide variety of places.
I read Joyce because his heroes felt what I felt and thought what I wanted to think. Joyce knew Dublin so well that he could write about it in exile as if he was gazing down on its streets from Finn’s Hotel but the books are not about Dublin because that’s what Joyce knew. He could just as easily have written about Trieste or Zurich or Paris. It was what Dublin meant to him emotionally that makes his great works great.
Imagine if Shakespeare had stuck to what he knew. We would have a set of plays about actors becoming playwrights in Elizabethan England with sexually transmitted diseases as light relief.
That would be a Complete Works to die for.
Obviously, Shakespeare’s poetic genius would have made those the best ever plays about actors with sexually transmitted diseases but still….
Wordsworth – in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads – called poetry:
the spontaneous overflow of emotions recollected in tranquility.
Note that ‘emotions’. Wordsworth didn’t say ‘knowledge’.
Now, let’s be generous and assume that the originator of that disastrous tenet – ‘write what you know’ – actually intended the phrase to mean ‘write what you have experienced and felt to be true’.
Unfortunately, because of a right royal cock-up – and a sloppy sense of verbal precision – this would-be commandment has been taken by the inexperienced to mean they can find material even in the folds of the freshly-pressed valences hanging from their recently deceased great aunt’s bed. On the other hand, the unimaginative have taken it as a justification for giving us stories that ‘actually happened’. We need more fiction that ‘actually happened’ like we need more mindless bias on Fox News.
Father Knew Lloyd George
OK, enough of this ranting. Appearances to the contrary, there is a point to all this.
Really. Here goes.
If you impose what you know on your writing, it will sit like a pile of lumpy porridge on the page.
If, on the other hand, you write with honesty about how you feel, . The thing to remember is that most readers prefer the risk of cutting themselves to partaking of cold porridge.
That’s your choice. Porridge or razors.
Neither are easy to swallow but if you eat enough razors, you’ll start to get callouses. In the right places.
You can also shave from the inside out.
They don’t teach you that in writing class.