After reading Andy Weir’s Artemis (2017), I revisited the maddening maxim that’s haunted me for years; the sentence written on the blackboard before the professor’s even turned around:
Write what you know.
Or even more confusingly:
Don’t write what you know!
The reason why Artemis stimulated this age-old debate is because; while I didn’t think Weir’s prose was anything to get excited about, his ability to use subjects he’s passionate about (and knows) and turn them into something thrilling and believable was astounding.
Yet the antics of protagonist Jazz Bashara take place in the year 2080 and on the moon, clearly two things that Weir has never experienced, or in other words, has never known. A startling contradiction n’est-ce pas?
It was clear that something interesting was going on.
I decided to look in every book and article I could find on the question of: ‘should you write what you know?’ to see what authors and academics believed, the time they were writing in as well as the context in which they offered their opinion.
I then drew up two columns in which to place the opposing arguments (my own conclusions) to try and make some sense of the question. The first was:
Why we should write what we know
— Knowing is as much about emotion as it is about the physical world. Writing about the emotions we’ve experienced is going to make our writing authentic in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t known them.
—Included amongst the things we know are probably subjects we’re passionate about; and writing about something that interests us and that we’re knowledgable about is incredibly important.
— If what we know is a world we’ve created, such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, we should write it because we know it better than anyone else.
—We should use up all of the experiences and tidbits that we’ve stored up over the course of our lives. To not use them, even as inspiration; would be a great waste.
—We’re never going to know the subtleties of the people and environment better than the place in which we grew up; so we should concentrate on this in order to produce the best possible interpretation of place.
Why we shouldn’t write what we know
— It encourages the mundane and restricts the imagination. Even if we end up writing what we do know; it’s good practice to start from the point of not knowing in order to develop our craft and push us to the very limits of our ability (kind of like the shaky feelings in our muscles after exercise that gradually strengthen over time).
—We shouldn’t limit ourselves. Who says that we have to passively wait for life to happen to us? We have the opportunity to research a subject in depth and to travel all over the world; even interview the kind of people we want to write about.
Aside from pleasure, writing should be about expanding human experience, feeling empathy for characters and willing readers to empathise too. The maxim: ‘write what you know’ dates back many years. Is it even relevant anymore in the internet age where we have so much information at our fingertips?
— Write what we don’t know because within that, there are still going to be things that we do know to create an anchor. For example, I may not know what it feels like to be a twenty-seven year old Vietnamese woman working on a fruit stall in Hanoi.
I am however extremely well acquainted with what it feels like to be a twenty-seven year old woman. ‘Knowing’ therefore, is not quite as straightforward as it seems and it’s a question of searching for commonalities to guide us.
—All fiction is inherently fantastical, so writing from a position of absolute reality is useless. Your characters are probably doing things that you never did anyway.
At first I felt confused by the information I’d read and interpreted, so I took some time away from my notepad to sit down and think. The minute I did:
I smelt a rat.
Due to the fact that many of these points could’ve fit into either category depending on the context, it suggested there was something wrong with the question itself.
After all, all of the answers given in either category were truthful and valid in their own way. I believe therefore that the professors should either be writing on the board:
Write what you know and what you don’t know!
Or better still don’t mention it altogether in the context it’s usually mentioned in.
If you think about it, it’s said a great deal but in reality is so unspecific that I think it would have a hard time clarifying itself if you asked it.
I myself have spent many hours agonising over whether I should stay at home in the confines of my Yorkshire upbringing or be more daring and write about Nashi pears growing in the loamy soil of a sheltered Japanese hillside.
I now realise this is not only the wrong argument to have with myself, it’s also an unhealthy position from which to start writing fiction.
So I’ve decided to create a new maxim to write on my imaginary blackboard:
Imagine, Empathise, Research, Write.
What do you think about this list? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion? Do you have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments section below!
Until next time; happy writing^^,