What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?
I asked that a couple years ago in a post, and I’ll ask it again. That question still conflicts me.
Back when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s biography, I remember pausing over her process, considering the way she frequently pulled from the familiarity of her own life to write intricately woven stories. She used Canada as a setting, places she’d been, streets she’d walked, people (or at least an outline of them) that she once knew. Her experiences influenced her fiction—and still do to this day.
However, Margaret Atwood is also known for her speculative works, which are based in the future, just a few of many possible alternative conclusions (scary as her worlds would be) of our current trajectory. She doesn’t know the future or which elements of the future in her novels will eventually (if ever) come to pass, and yet, the fearsome thing about her work is that it is easy to believe it could happen.
So, going back to the first question I wonder: Which is better? A mix of “write what we know” and “write what we’d like to know,” or should we change our approach entirely to “what can we imagine?”
According to BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON over at the Atlantic, we should go with the latter. When he started writing away from the familiarity of his own life, he found that “the shift was seismic.”
Delving into the deeper unknown and pursuing the more difficult, untreaded path is never easy. I am a notorious perfectionist. The problem I have with writing what I don’t know is that I run into the feeling that I should know it. Then I start researching. Then I expand that research. Then I have this tendency of trying to know everything about everything and nothing gets written.
But I also have frequently submersed myself into the speculative world, envisioned a future that is not my own, of which I know absolutely nothing, and it has been a freeing lesson in creativity. In this world, my characters and the environment have rules, but they are not necessarily the same rules by which I live. Instead of pushing my own agenda upon them, the well-lit paths of my own past, for instance, I get to witness a new kind of life: one that is not my own to live, yet one that I will live anyway, through them.
In that sense, maybe our characters do know best.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull from the aspects of your life that you do know. It’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between both worlds, writing authentically about the strange, abstract unknown while still drawing from familiar outlines: the sprawling sunset you witnessed on a mountainside, learning a language in a foreign country, meeting a person that all but confounds you. These are real experiences, but your characters don’t have to meet the same fate as you.
Abstract elements are combined and reinforced within the tangible nature of fiction. It’s not so much about what we know—it’s about what we could possibly know, and what we continue to learn, with each and every day that we experience the mundane, the novel, the risks.
So my conclusion? Write about the possibilities.
Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.
-Brett Anthony Johnston