April 18, 2014

It’s OK to Write What You Don’t Know

mark twainMark Twain started it when he said, “Write what you know.” From then on, writers have taken that as gospel. Dig deep. Scratch out what you feel/think/are passionate about and bleed it onto the page. As new writers it’s one of three truths pounded into us–Show don’t tell, Murder your babies, and Write what you know.

No one ever asks, “Don’t novelists make stuff up?” It doesn’t seem to matter that no one’s ever seen DC blow up though thriller writers postulate it all the time. How about a massive gorilla atop the Empire State Building? Fantasy writers make up whole worlds and species. As do Sci Fi aficionados. Did they not get the memo? What about Hannibal Lector, cutting people’s heads open to eat their living brain? Or Criminal Minds‘ psycho killers? I’d rather drink Drano than think they’re real.

In a rational literary world, making stuff up makes sense. It’s called ‘fiction’, which Webster defines as ‘not real’ (I’ve abbreviated, but you get the idea). How does that jive with ‘Write what you know’. What Mark Twain should have said–maybe meant to say–was ‘Lie creatively. Do your research, weave with zest, be believable, and write’. But that’s got all the literary charisma of a dirty needle.

Maybe he meant it as a suggestion, Write what you know. Or not. Your choice.

I confess, I tried to ‘write what I know’. I imagined what people I knew would do in particular circumstances and wrote that story. It was boring. Then, I researched a topic, got all the details exquisitely perfect and added fiction characteristics like characters, setting, crises, pacing–stuff like that. It was creative nonfiction before that was invented. I figured I was still ‘writing what I knew’, just embellishing.

No one bought it. I actually loved it, but not so much I didn’t recognize that it had no power, passion, or pull.

That’s when the truth hit me: Great authors don’t write what they know. They write what they wish they knew or should know. Maybe they include their politics or morals or some other closely-held opinions, like sauce on an over-cooked chicken, but the rest is fiction.

Today, twenty years and counting into my writing fantasy, I’m ready to admit I’ve been duped. If you like me have seen the truth, I invite you to a virtual Write-What-You-Know Writers Anonymous meeting. Add your name to the Comment section below. I’ll start. Hi. My name is Jacqui, and I’m a recovering WWYKW. Since my epiphany, I’ve written ten thousand eight hundred and seventy words that have no basis in my life, history, or reality.

Who’s next?

–Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/5244626511/sizes/m/in/photostream/

–Article first appeared in Today’s Author

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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