Write what you know? “Bollocks”, as Aristotle would have said.
I view ‘advice for writers’ articles with suspicion. Strange opening for what looks like yet another example of the form, I know, but bear with me. I’ve read many that contain good tips and sage wisdom. I’ve adopted strategies other writers have used and found them effective. Still, whenever I see click-bait headlines like ‘10 Tips for Aspiring Novelists’ or ‘17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Novel / Short Story / Poem / Play / Screenplay / Haiku’ (I might write this one day, 17 Mistakes You Are Making With Your Haiku’ – one per syllable and present it as a mega-haiku) I feel a great disturbance in the Force. Why? Because of the assumptions contained in them and because of the damage they can do.
These articles start from two simple premises:
- There is a right way of writing and a wrong way.
- Because I, the article writer, have published X amount of books, Y amount of articles and Z amount of blog posts, I know which is which.
Both are wrong, and embody what Aristotle would call a ‘false start’, being, as he was, a big fan of athletics.
There isn’t a right way or a wrong way of writing. There are ways that have met with success and ways that haven’t. Some writers plan every scene, making charts of weather, hours of darkness and light, what was in the news and who was on the 6 Music playlist on the days in question. Others begin with a sentence, a mood, or a voice and follow it for 80’000 words. Some writers set out to deal with an issue, a theme, to explore an argument or an assumption. Others want to tell a story and allow any themes to arise naturally. All are valid. Try them. See what works. But the following argument is what Aristotle would call bogus, being, as he was, a fan of the Bill and Ted movies:
JK Rowling planned her whole series in advance.
She has been almost insultingly successful.
Therefore, in order to be successful, I must do what she did.
Hemingway said about getting started: ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ He didn’t cover his office with sticky paper yet he was quite successful too.
Secondly, as Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, ‘Danger, Will Robinson.’ Good advice is helpful, maybe it nudges you in a better direction, maybe it lets you see a problem from another angle. Great. Bad advice however can be destructive. It doesn’t just nudge you, it can push you off the road like an elderly driver. At times it can stop you in your tracks like an elderly driver. Occasionally it can metaphorically kill you like a metaphorical elderly driver.
I studied creative writing at the University of Glasgow. It was a great course with fantastic teachers, wonderful writers and I’d do it all again in a second but boy did it stop me from writing for years. The problem, I now realise, is that I had so many competing pieces of advice, so many contradictory opinions bothering me like Hitchcockian birds that I couldn’t work out what to do or where to go. There is a well-established backlash against creative writing courses, and writers like Hanif Kureishi have famously spoken out against them (not very controversially to be honest, his point boiled down to ‘we can’t teach talent, only technique’ which is fair enough. Learning how to hold a brush and reading about the theory of the golden ratio won’t turn me into Leonardo da Vinci and cutting off my ear won’t make me Van Gogh).
I don’t really agree with the backlash. The courses are good and writers get a lot out of them. Whether they are value for money is a question about tuition fees and the nature of education, a separate issue. Whether you become a successful writer after graduation is down to talent and luck, neither of which is guaranteed with your degree certificate. In the main, they provide a safe, supportive environment in which to learn and to make mistakes, exactly the same as art school and football academies. However they are not like law degrees or medical degrees. To be a doctor you have to learn anatomy, biochemistry, surgical procedure. To be a lawyer you need to learn precedent, legal codes and how to write offensively expensive letters. There are rules. Memorise them. Follow them. If you deviate, people die. If you internalise everything you’re taught, one day you too can be screwed by Jeremy Hunt.
Not so with writing, though you wouldn’t know it if you Google for writing tips: Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use adjectives. Don’t use present tense. Don’t use the second person. Don’t use too many auxiliary verbs. Don’t use anything other than ‘said’ (and specifically never, ever use ‘ejaculate’ in reference to speech, I mean, come on, JK). Don’t use passive verbs. Don’t use distancing tenses. If a gun is introduced, it must be fired. Never use your story to get revenge. Write what you know.
Look again at your favourite writers. They break all of these ‘rules’. David Mitchell does (he has twice written about a writer getting revenge on an unkind reviewer). So does Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings is a triumph of voice and when people speak they use adverbs, adjectives, second person, present tenses, the lot). They’re both quite successful as well.
But the worst of them all, the most insidious piece of advice is ‘Write What You Know.’
Bollocks, as Aristotle would have said.
Write what you know. Because Tolkein was a wizard, Thomas Harris was a cannibal and Shakespeare exited pursued by bear.
Write what you know because the only real literature is realism, the only authority is experience and empathy is patronising.
Bollocks, says Aristotle. A load of.
Literature is empathy. Writing a novel is the ultimate act of empathy. You take on the voice, the mannerisms, the opinions of a character or a number of characters in order to tell their story. Dostoevsky didn’t steal from Alyona Ivanovna after murdering her, he imagined what it would be like. Ian Fleming didn’t have sex with all those women. He imagined what it would be like. Presumably often and at great length. HG Wells didn’t travel in time, to the moon or to the Island of Dr Moreau.
The entire canon of world literature is treated like the exception that proves the rule. Dickens, Kundera, Murasaki Shikibu and the recently lost, much lamented Umberto Eco all did it the wrong way. They imagined people and worlds and stories about which they had no personal experience, about which nobody had any personal experience. Yet still there’s the advice; write what you know.
So why then all the fuss about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series? If you don’t know, it’s a six book series that details, in the kind of minute detail Joyce would have appreciated, Knausgaard’s own life. A publishing sensation in his native Norway and in translation, what’s so special about someone writing their own life, writing openly about their family and friends and intimate thoughts and washing up? If all we do is write what we know, a Norwegian man writing what he knows should be unremarkable. Yet it is remarkable precisely because we tend not to write what we know. We write what we imagine, spice it with our own experience and back it up with research.
My new novel is called The Waves Burn Bright. It deals with a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster and the PTSD that destroys his family. Half of the novel is told from his perspective. The other half is narrated by his daughter. I could write this book because I did extensive research and because I took empathic leaps to try and understand what it would feel like to think you’re going to die, to have PTSD, to suffer from survivor’s guilt, to be an alcoholic, to commit adultery, to become a geologist, to live in New Zealand and Hawaii, to be a woman, to be gay. Write what you know? Experience isn’t the only source of authority. Research, talking, listening, empathy, imagination. A writer’s tools. Don’t just write what you know. Find out what you don’t know. Mix the two.
Why, Aristotle would ask, the big fuss?
Because I’ve seen what bad advice can do to a writer. I struggled to get back to work after studying at Glasgow but eventually I worked out which advice was useful, which I could ignore and which I could actively fight against (during my time in Glasgow, someone (not a member of the university or another student I hasten to add) told me that I wasn’t writing proper Scottish literature because I wasn’t writing about working-class men from the Central Belt. That person can, as Aristotle would say, Γαμήσου). Long before then, however, I was a member of the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society. As with all groups of this kind we wrote, critiqued each other’s work and then got drunk. We were all undergraduates, young, horny and oh so damn serious about literature. We stayed up late drinking wine and discussing Keats. We wrote ‘responses’ to Beckett and ‘homages’ to Kerouac. We really deserved a good slap. One writer, however, didn’t. He wrote fun short stories of an Ian Fleming meets Tom Sharpe variety: heroes with guns, cartoon bad guys, slapstick and Tarantino-esque levels of blood. They were over-the-top and unrealistic and every week we told him that. ‘You’re talented,’ we’d say, ‘you should write realism, you should write proper literature. You should write what you know.’ We really deserved a good slap. As our lack of enthusiasm for what he was doing became apparent, so his enthusiasm waned. He kept coming to meetings, but didn’t hand in work as often. Eventually he stopped handing in at all. As far as I know he stopped writing. We remained good friends for years afterwards but eventually lost touch. I’ve never been able to shake the fear that our ‘advice’ derailed him. I wish, instead of saying what we did, we’d said something like, ‘It’s not very believable. Why not do some research into firearms and explosives. Look at anatomy books and trauma studies. Skulls don’t make a pop noise when you shoot them. But what noise do they make?’
Don’t write what you know, but make sure you know what you write.
Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way. There’s Tolstoy’s way and Woolf’s way and Voltaire’s way and Oe’s way and they’re all different and they’re all right.
And don’t take advice from anyone just because they say it with authority, least of all me. Aristotle would say the same.
About the author of this post
Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and the Dundee International Book Prize.
His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out on Freight Books May 19th 2016. First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now. Iain will be touring the UK in May to promote his new book. To book him for an event please contact him via Twitter. More at www.iainmaloney.wordpress.com and @iainmaloney