After reading Andy Weir’s Artemis (2017), I revisited the maddening maxim that’s haunted me for years. It’s 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 great, his ability to use subjects he knows and turn them into something 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. A startling contradiction n’est-ce pas?
It was clear that something interesting was going on.
I decided to research this topic in depth to see what famous authors believed, the time they were writing as well as the context in which they offered their opinion.
I then drew up two columns to try and make some sense of it. 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. 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 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. Therefore 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. This develops our craft and pushes us to the limits of our ability (kind of like shaky 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. It’s about empathising with 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?
- Because we can still create an anchor within something unfamiliar to us. 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 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 is 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 moment 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, every answer given in either category was valid in its 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. I’ve spent many hours agonising over whether I should stay 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.
* * *
So how do you feel about this list? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion? Let me know in the comments section below!
Until next time,