Monday, August 8, 2011

Forget your perfect offering

If there was any piece of writing advice that I'd like to stab through the throat with my pen, it is "write what you know." Not least because I believe that the vast majority of novels about middle-aged humanities professors having affairs with their grad students and getting divorced (not necessarily in that order) can be directly traced back to this adage. 

I don't mean a responsible writer shouldn't do research or rely on a list of experts to help make sure that she knows what she is talking about, and conveys that knowledge in a manner useful to her reader. Research is a necessary part of good writing. Otherwise you have a reader who knows that vampires don't walk around in daylight wondering why the ones in your book can, and putting the book down when you don't provide a compelling explanation.

But too often, "write what you know" makes us cowards. We know what will sell, so we write to that instead of the book that lives in our secret heart. We know our strengths as writers, so we hide behind those, and never push ourselves to try new things. We know how putting certain truths in our work will make our parents, our friends, our lovers look at us, and so we don't write those, because we know that writing something else will be easier, and cleaner. We know what is safe to write, and we write that.

We write what we know when we want to be perfect, and I don't think perfection is what art is about. I think art is about truth.

I am not a good writer when I write safely. I'm an educated one - an advanced degree in Literature means I have plenty of practice thinking about the pieces that go into a story. I can give you theme and archetype, blood, love, and rhetoric, all wrapped up in a tidy bit of literary allusion. I'm good enough at language and the manipulation of words to turn a pithy - or pretty - phrase. I can paint the surface of the page with sparkle and shine. It's beautiful, but it's false at it's heart. At best, what I make when I do this will be mediocre.

I don't want to be mediocre. I would rather be a spectacular failure than be safe.

I was reading an interview with Amanda Palmer today, and in it (while talking about twitter) she says, "share things that make you uncomfortable." It's that piece of advice that I would replace "write what you know" with. Because I've found that when you acknowledge the existence of that discomfort - poke around in it a bit and think about why you don't want to write that scene, or that character, or that story - what comes out is better art. 

When I say this, I don't mean uncomfortable in terms of shock value. I mean it in terms of truth. I mean it in the way that if you think people will judge you, that they will look at you funny, or like you less, or wonder if you're a creep or a pervert or a weirdo or or or, for putting something in your art, then maybe that is exactly the thing your art needs.

I'm not going to lie, and say that's easy or fun, or that there haven't been times I've handed something in and thought "Dear God, I hope my Mom never reads that." And I don't succeed at being honest in my work all the time - possibly the most devastating critique I ever received was a single line: "Dear Kat, you know you have to write [redacted] if you want this to mean anything." It was devastating because I had known. I just wasn't brave enough to put it in that draft. And it was so obviously the missing piece of story.

So don't be satisfied to write what you know. Share what makes you uncomfortable. Write what terrifies you.

Write what's true.


  1. Yeah.


    (The inarticulateness will pass. But...yeah.)

  2. Furthering the inspired incoherence, Ouch.

    Also, Amen.

  3. I needed to hear this, today.

    I agree with you. Writing what you know is an act of cowardice. I know I've been guilty of it. I can tell you the exact point in a story where I wasn't brave enough.

    The last short story I wrote is unlike anything I've written. It wasn't easy to write, but it came out true. I had to rewrite the ending twice, because I wanted to chicken out. I wanted to write a clear cut villain, but that didn't work with the story. I'm proud of how it turned out. It's the best story that I can make it. Hopefully, that will be enough.

    I'm bookmarking this so I can come back to read when I need to hear this advice again. Thank you. ~Ali

  4. "I don't want to be mediocre. I would rather be a spectacular failure than be safe."

    I am having that tattooed into my chest. Or I'll at least print it out and stick it up on the wall near my computer.

    I read a Stephen King quote recently that said most bad writing can be traced back to fear. I completely agree with what you said above. If we're only putting half ourselves in the book, the half that we bring out when we meet our in-laws for the first time, or when we have company for dinner, then we're selling ourselves short and trying to con the reader into the bargain.

  5. Julia - I really like what you said about not just putting half of ourselves into a book.

  6. Guilty.

    Every time I think of something I should write about, what immediatley follows is "wait, I can't write about it". Not unless its so much twisted and covered by the thickest layers of language that it becomes invisble, and even then I'm too afraid it can be discovered.

    I believe that's what Rollo May talked about when he spoke of "the courage to create". I lack it. My works, if they ever exist, will be posthumous.

    In the meantime, thank you for your courage. (Thank Amanda, and Neil, and Rushdie, and Von Trier, and all those I love so much for saying what I can't say).


  7. Oh Marcos. This breaks my heart. The courage to create isn't something you get all at once, though (or maybe it is for some people. It wasn't for me.) Perhaps one day you will have a story that it is harder to keep silent than to tell. If you do, imagine me cheering you on.

    And thank you.

  8. "share things that make you uncomfortable."
    I think this is the credo of Günter Grass.