“A novel is a confession to everything by a person who has never done anything.”–Mark Twain
What aspiring writer hasn’t heard the adage (or even been solemnly instructed by the teacher of a creative writing class) to “write what you know”? Every time I hear that, I invariably think, “But what if you don’t know anything?” Which then reminds me of what Will Rogers said: “It’s not what he doesn’t know that bothers me; it’s what he knows for sure that just ain’t so.” Which then makes me think of Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush, and then I just get depressed. Or nauseated.
But to get back to my point (yes, I do have one) …
Should writers write only about their own personal experiences? I doubt that Agatha Christie ever really murdered anyone (at least I hope not … but then again, that might make a good novel and perhaps already has, for all I know) or Sue Grafton or Nevada Barr or Marcia Muller or Sara Paretsky or for that matter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also unlikely that Ray Bradbury ever visited Mars or Tolkien ever visited Middle Earth. And as far as all the many, many, many novels about plucky young heroines who have vampire/werewolf/werewhatever boyfriends–seriously doubt the authors really do. But if writers were limited to writing only about what they have experienced themselves–the world would be an awfully boring place.
What if you really don’t know anything? Not saying I don’t. No one can survive this long without picking up a thing or two. I hope. But if you write only about your own life, what do you have to draw from? Most of us go to school, grow up, get a boring job, get married and have kids or don’t, love a series of dogs and/or cats, buy stuff, watch too much television, and eventually die. Many people actually write novels about things like that and even do it well. Fair play to them. But like the song says: Is that all there is? Thank the gods and goddesses–no. That’s what research is for. And almost anything can be research. (Or at least you can use that as an excuse, if you need one …)
Years ago I wanted to write a novel that had some swordfighting in it. Don’t remember now how I got on that kick. Maybe it was watching “Highlander” or “Zorro” or “Scaramouche” or “The Three Musketeers” or “Robin Hood” or “The Court Jester” or “The Princess Bride” or “Star Wars”… come to think of it, there’s an awful lot of swordfighting in the movies, isn’t there? Thoughts on why will have to wait for another day. Anyway, I knew I really wanted some good swordfighting scenes, but I had no idea how to describe it. Watching it doesn’t tell you the terminology, and you can’t really even tell what’s going on just by watching, because it all happens so fast. So I took a beginning fencing class in a salle in Seattle. It was fun, but about the only thing I really learned was that I should have started decades earlier, when my knees were younger. Didn’t help me write about swordfighting.
So to the library I went. And the bookstore. I found more about swords and the art of using them than I ever dreamed existed. I read. I took notes. I read some more. And I wrote a novel called A Night Devoid of Stars. The novel isn’t about swordfighting, but those scenes are my favorites. They were fun to write, but I don’t claim that they’re accurate. I mean, I hope they are. But I’m no expert. I did the best I could with what I had to work with at the time, and I loved doing it. Someone else, who, you know, actually knows this stuff could no doubt do it better.
So. Write what you know? Absolutely. Or write what you learn. Or better yet, write what you can imagine. Isn’t that what fiction is, after all: an entire universe of the imagination? You can write nonfiction, certainly, if you’re so inclined, but if you’re not, you can always do research and you can also make stuff up. The world is a grim place: We need stories to take our minds off real life. And as Liza Minnelli once said, “Reality is something you rise above.” Fiction can help you do that. If you write what you imagine.