Learning to Write, and the Law of ‘Write What You Know’

A friend at university (he was a university student — I had graduated from a different school a couple of years before and just hung out at the student center because it was the only place in the whole frakkin’ city to find people who didn’t think that reading on one’s lunch break was a lynching offense) once asked me who had taught me how to write fiction. I made the mistake of answering honestly: No one taught me. So he started to tell me the story about some woman named Arachne… Yeah, I told him, I’m familiar with the myth, and I’m at no risk of being spiderized. You want names? Okay. Tolkien and Lewis taught me. Madeleine L’Engle and Andre Norton taught me. Anne McCaffrey and Roger Zelazny… I learned how to write, how to create good stories, by reading good stories and paying attention to what I was reading.

This was not the answer he wanted.

He wanted the cheat codes. He wanted the secrets of how to write stories without having to do anything but flap his fingers at a keyboard and have a great work of fiction appear on the page so the author will be instantly surrounded by adoring groupies. (I am not opposed to the concept of adoring groupies; I just think a writer needs a better primary motivation for writing.) He didn’t even like reading.

Yes, I have taken a few university courses in fiction writing. Given the choice between that and yet another semester of English literature, the choice was pretty damn easy. Besides, it was a way to get feedback on my own writing, at least audience response. However, I never thought that I learned about the actual craft of writing by taking those courses. What I did learn a lot about was what my classmates thought of certain kinds of fiction: They generally didn’t get it, and didn’t like it, and gods help you if you’d written a male character in a sci-fi story who isn’t a copy of Shatner-as-Kirk, ’cause that’s all these people knew at all about the genre. They also thought that only men write science fiction because only men read it; asking my female classmates to give feedback on a sci-fi story, as if they were just as capable of understanding and even possibly enjoying it as my male classmates were, was apparently quite rude and insensitive of me. (If anyone has a real explanation of why, I’d like to know.)

I even took a graduate-level course on fiction writing. Oh, wasn’t that enlightening… Toward the end of the semester, when we were all sitting around and talking about out personal experiences as writers, one woman said, “I hate the stories I’ve written for this class, but everyone says write what you know, and these stories are about the kinds of things I’ve experienced in my life.” I’d like to think my reply helped her: “I write science fiction. What are the odds, do you think, that I’ve actually experienced even a fourth of the stuff I write about?” My classmates laughed, but I’d like to think I made my point.

I got my first “write what you know” lecture from my eleventh-grade English teacher (I will never forget that she once told me I was ‘too smart to be wasting my mind on science fiction’ — things that are shockingly nonsensical do tend to stick in my memory), who felt that I should be writing stories about ‘normal teen stuff’: dating and going to parties and angst over not making the basketball team. But I didn’t know any of that stuff the way she meant; it wasn’t part of my experience. A good guideline for any writer to follow is, Don’t write about things that your audience knows far better than you do — they’ll spot you as a phony in less than three seconds. (Or, as I told the aforementioned friend at university, Virgins shouldn’t write sex scenes. Oh, was he ever upset — I’d used the v-word! Out loud! Which just further proved my point: if you’re afraid of the words, you’re not ready to write them. And if you can’t say hellhound, you can’t play in my Amber DRPG campaign, ’cause H-E-double-hockey-stick-hound doesn’t cut it. *rolls eyes*) Having been reading fantasy novels since the age of eight and science fiction since the age of ten, I had a pretty good grasp of what went on in those genres; I knew those things as well as a seventeen-year-old could know anything.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the way it is too often presented, “Write what you know” would mean that no one should write anything but their own autobiography. (Some people believe this, too. They’re weirdos, and not in a good way.) The truth is that most of us aren’t interesting enough for that. And there are days when I think that, if I did write my autobiography, it would end up in the same section of the library/bookstore anyway, so why not just write fiction?



About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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