Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Writing craft: Don't write what you know, write what you don't know you know. You know?

Now playing on the iPod - "Caught A Lite Sneeze" - Tori Amos

I’ve probably mentioned before that “write what you know” is some of the worst advice a writer can get. It’s usually interpreted as “write about what you have directly experienced” and if writers followed that rule to the letter, there’d be a lot of really boring books out there (mine in particular!).

I haven’t changed my view that “write what you know” is bad advice, but I’m starting to believe that most of us, whether we know it or not, are writing about things we know: the distinction is twofold. One, we’re writing about things we may not have directly experienced but have heard about from others’ lives or stories. Two, many of these things lodge in our subconscious, and we end up writing about them without realizing we’re doing so.

A few years ago, I was watching the 1980 horror film The Changeling with some friends. I’d seen the film before, but not since I was in my early teens. (Side note: It’s an excellent, spooky film with almost no onscreen violence and a fantastic performance by George C. Scott. Go rent it now.) The film opens with the main character losing his family in a roadside accident. One of my friends called out: “Look familiar, Kelly?” and I realized that I had written a scene much like that in one of my stories. And even though I hadn’t seen the film in well over a decade when I wrote the scene in question, it was there in my subconscious.

Likewise, recently I got to thinking about a girl I knew in grade school. The girl had a younger brother, and it was very clear the brother was much favored by the parents. He had a full bedroom, whereas the girl’s room was actually the closet of her younger brother’s room. (The girl also knew from overhearing parental conversation that she was an “ooops” resulting from faulty birth control.) I hadn’t thought about this girl in years, as I haven’t seen her since 8th grade, but now I’m wondering if that family dynamic was in any way an inspiration for a similar one in my book The Day After Yesterday (although for that one I know that I consciously was inspired by the Harry Potter books and how Harry is so shabbily treated by his aunt and uncle).

I think a lot of the writing process may be subconscious. After a manuscript has sat in the drawer and I’m revising it, I’ll see connections and motifs that I didn’t recall planning out. But there they are. And I suspect that a lot of what we think falls into the “stuff I haven’t experienced” is really “stuff I’ve heard about from friends/read about/seen in other books or movies”. As long as the writer does the job well, no one need know (or should care) that an event or character’s backstory has no direct correlation to the writer’s past.

It might be intriguing to see a map of the brain, and figure out where all this comes from. But no, let’s leave it a mystery. Let’s not lose the moment of “Oh, that’s where that came from.” Those moments are sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, but they’re always interesting.

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