HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
What You Know
One of the many, many times I started figuring out how to write fiction, I was early in my college career. I had a couple of resources: creative writing classes and how-to-write books whose titles I will omit here out of an abundance of charity. One of the things that I found back then was a lot of pithy truism meant to guide the aspiring writer that carried a weight usually reserved for scripture: Show, Don’t Tell; Write What You Know; and so on.
As I’ve gone on, I’ve gone from clinging to these to being skeptical of almost all of them. The one that took the longest to fall from grace with me was Show, Don’t Tell. It turns out that being able to write summary narrative is really important, evoking the physical sensations of everything can get just as dull as exposition, and knowing when to do which one is a critical skill. But I digress.
As with so many things, though, there’s an exception. I rejected Write What You Know pretty much in the time it took to hear the last syllable. It took me years to find an interpretation of those words that actually made sense.
The truth is, I don’t really know when someone first told me Write What You Know, but given where I was at the time, I can speculate. I took creative writing classes when I was in school, usually because it was a quick three credits of A. The system was always pretty much the same: a class full of college-age students under the guidance of a teacher who—with few and memorable exceptions—didn’t earn a living writing fiction. We met in the classroom, read one another’s work, and told each other what was and wasn’t working in hopes that in aggregate, we were smarter, more sophisticated, more insightful and more nurturing of literary talent than any of us were individually.
I’ve got no stones to throw here. I’m sure there are worse ways to teach, but the skills I learned were about how to get along well in that kind of class: how to express my opinions—however ill-founded—with confidence; how to offer criticism that sounded a lot like the five people who went before me without quite copying them; how to amend my opinion of a piece of work when it became clear the room—and especially the teacher—disagreed with me. The truth is, those classes were easy and fun. I liked them. But somewhere in there, someone trotted out the idea that you should Write What You Know, and like any good speculative fiction writer, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it.
Because, really, had Frank Herbert lived on Arrakis? Had Le Guin summered in Earthsea as a child? Writing what you knew seemed to me like a backhanded way of saying don’t write fantastika. And it was used to mean that sometimes. The prejudice against what I do was certainly part of the academic water in which I swam. I understand from those who are younger or who have more of a taste for that kind of thing, it still is. As a motto for championing strictly mimetic fiction and encouraging more stories about being an undergraduate, it’s dumb.
But an interesting thing happens when you distill an aesthetic insight into a bumper sticker. The same words can have several meanings.
A few years ago, I had dinner with Junot Díaz who in addition to being a passionate and brilliant author also teaches creative writing in an academic setting. We didn’t talk about the rule to Write What You Know, but we did talk about how people teach writing and how they learn it. Junot told me that, in his experience, playwrights in the theater departments know more about structure and storytelling than the creative writers in English departments. After that, the conversation moved on to the role-playing systems we’d all preferred as kids, but that idea stuck with me, and—after having published six or seven novels—I started the process of learning to write. I do that pretty much every three or four years.
Lajos Egri published the first version of The Art of Dramatic Writing in 1942. The copy I have is the 54th edition. In it, he spends a lot of space talking about the idea of premise. I can’t do his argument justice in a few sentences, so I’ll just give you two aspects of the discussion that struck home for me.
First, there’s the idea of starting with a premise. The premise of a story (according to Egri’s analysis) is like one of the morals for Aesop. It’s the argument the story makes. So, for example, Egri says the premise of Othello is “Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.” For Ibsen’s Ghosts: “The sins of the father are visited on the children.” Now, working more than seven decades after the book first saw print, I have some quibbles about the role of the audience versus the vision of the artist, but okay. Whatever. I didn’t have the same experience of some of the plays that Egri did. Also fine. Put that aside.
The other thing that Egri said—one of the many other things —is that it’s very hard and maybe impossible to write a good, solid story based in a premise you don’t believe. That struck home.
I have been in critique groups since college, and some of them have been very, very good, especially the ones that included professional writers who took their craft seriously. I have learned a tremendous amount about how to do what I do. And one thing I’ve seen over and over is how a story comes alive when it matters to the author.
I didn’t—and still don’t—begin anything I do with Egri’s premise theory in mind. But I’ve learned to see what it is in each project I do that I would champion. I try to lean into those arguments and thoughts and ideas. I try to cut out the bits that get in the way. Usually, they weren’t working anyway. I’ve written things that, in retrospect, I can see premises in like “Love alone offers no safety” and “Holding on to a failed relationship leads to debasement” and—more often than anything else “Simplistic morality leads to atrocity.” All of those speak to my experience.
And so I cycled back to Write What You Know.
When someone uses that phrase to talk about the concrete details of a particular life—implying that middle-class college undergrads shouldn’t write about fantasy kings and queens, high school students should only write about high school, Anglos should only write about Anglos, straight people about straight people, men about men, women about women—it’s a small, stupid, venal argument. It’s immoral, and more than that, it’s bad craft.
On the other hand, when we use it (as I choose to) to mean Write What You Know To Be True— write work that, regardless of the setting or the characters or the plot, is based in the sense you’ve made of the world, is informed by the insights you’ve had about what it is to be human, has (in Egri’s terms) a premise you believe—it’s more than just good advice.
It’s a statement about the morality of art, because it means that living a full life, building a deep understanding of the world and our place in it, cultivating—however imperfectly—wisdom is an issue of good craftsmanship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Abraham is a writer of genre fiction with a dozen books in print and over thirty published short stories. His work has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo Awards and has been awarded the International Horror Guild Award. He also writes as MLN Hanover and (with Ty Franck) as James S. A. Corey. He lives in the American Southwest.
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