Five Things: How to Write About What You Already Know
Hemingway’s famous advice to 'write what you know' probably gets more unfair scorn poured on it than any other famous piece of writing advice. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read other writers (or pundits on the art of fiction) criticising it as overly ‘realist’, restricting and dogmatic.
In fairness to the big bearded dead man though, it would be superficial to take his words as meaning that we should only ever set our novels and stories in actual places we’ve seen with our own eyes, or only write from the viewpoint of our own gender, race, culture, sexuality or whatever. And even if he did mean that, the advice itself is much more valuable if we take it as a prompt to reflect on (and use) not just the random ‘stuff’ we happen to know, or have experienced at first hand, but the ways in which we know (or the ways in which we understand) our experiences of life.
What we ‘know’ is never simply personal and private. Falling in love is certainly personal, intense and in some ways private, but it’s also shared and in some ways universal (otherwise it could never be written about). I know it’s a simple and obvious point, but it goes to the heart of why we should think about how we know, not just what we know, when we draw on all our accumulated grasp of life to write fiction that will hopefully resonate with other people.
So, I thought I’d share 5 ways I find helpful in ‘digging down’ into what I know, because if it’s done right we won’t simply dig down into random, personal memories that have no bearing on anyone else’s experience: instead, we’ll excavate the kinds of patterns and clues that can make a story (whether it’s set in Kilmarnock or on Mars) genuinely relateable to, and hopefully powerful.
1. Think about the archetypal aspects of your experiences.
Think about your first experience of something (first kiss, first heartbreak, first betrayal, first enchantment, first deep loss, for example). These key, formative experiences are the backbone of so many extraordinary stories and novels, and we all experience them in one way or another. The Great Gatsby is, on one level, simply the story of a man who can’t get over his first fairly immature bedazzlemement. Everything profound in the novel flows from that one, archetypal spring.
2. Give your memories to someone else.
What if one of your most formative experiences happened to someone completely different to you? How would they have dealt with it? What kind of person might they have become? Daydreaming along these lines can easily unlock a whole fictional lifetime that has grown out of something you know intimately, but is no longer restricted by your own experience. The great Irish short story writer John McGahern noted that the stories he always struggled to finish were the ones that stayed too closely tied to his actual life and experiences: to ‘release’ them he always had to find a way of giving them up more completely to fiction.
3. When you read, and are struck by moments of recognition, think of ways you might write your own story that taps into that same feeling.
If you felt a moment of revelation and affinity when you first read ‘Metamorphosis’ and understood exactly how it makes perfect sense for Gregor Samsa to wake up as a beetle, then daydream about other ways of expressing that ‘typological’ (or structural) truth about how life feels to you, or has felt to you at certain times. Fairy tales are excellent for this, too: the Grimms’ version of ‘Why Can’t I Shiver?’ is one of the great existential tales of our culture. In its own bare-bones way it gives us a protagonist as unnerving and yet relateable to as Camus’s Meursault.
4. Remind yourself that no memory is ‘true’: every memory is a construction, and as a writer that simple fact is filled with possibilities for narrative energy.
What if you allow one of your cherished memories to be contested by a character who remembers it very differently? Move the camera, as it were, so that whatever is out of focus, or simply in the background, of your original memory becomes central to it. Challenge the memory; challenge what you think you know.
5. What don’t you remember? What don’t you know?
Reflect on the gaps in your knowledge and memories. What things were kept from you as a child? What things were hidden in plain sight, because you were too young to understand? What might still be hidden, and what do you hide from yourself, and why? Asking yourself these questions can open all kinds of doors for your characters and for your sense of what kinds of ‘absent presences’ might shape their stories. In Tennessee Williams’s great play, The Glass Menagerie, the portrait of the smiling runaway father watches everything: his absence is the most powerful force in the play, and it shapes (and ruins) the lives of every ‘present’ character in the drama.
I think what Hemingway was getting at is that our memories, the things ‘we know’, are simply the rusty keys to the treasure chest; they’re not the treasure itself, but they make it available to us.
Competition: Win a copy of Mercy Seat by Wayne Price
We have two copies of Mercy Seat by Wayne Price to give away, courtesy of Freight Books.
To win the set, simply answer this question in the comments below or email your answer to email@example.com marked 'Wayne Price Competition':
- Which famous writer originally coined the phrase "write what you know"?
Closing date: 17:00, Thursday 19 March 2015. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.