Opinion / Writing

Write what you (don’t) know

RNWords by Rachael Nielsen

“Write what you know” was a popular phrase said throughout my creative writing degree by my teachers. There is an absurd simplicity to the idea of writing what you already have in your head. It’s easy logic. It made sense to me at the time but the theory didn’t totally work for me once I tunnelled further into writing fiction. Plenty of my inspiration came from my passions and experiences but was pushed along by my imagination. I made up a lot that went into my stories. I also came across the opposite slogan touted as the principle advice to follow; that we should write what we don’t know. But can any simplified idea direct us properly in how we should approach writing?

Amy Suto suggests, “The phrase ‘write what you know’ can be damaging to a writer when taken too literally [writing what you know] … means that you’re supposed to use what you do know as a jumping off point.” Marlene Day in The Writer’s Reader, suggests something similar: “inject into the work your own emotional experiences.” This can give fiction rich nuances and realistic hints that ground the work in plausibility. I can see this approach used in Harper Lee’s work. She arguably wrote from a place of what she knew when she penned To Kill a Mockingbird. But she also respected the limitations of her life experience. The novel is told through the perspective of Scout, a six year old white girl living in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s. Harper Lee knew what it was to grow up in the Deep South and what it was like to be a young girl. Elements of her childhood are interwoven in the plot and characters. Lee nevertheless, used great sensitivity when telling the story of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of sexual assault. She tells the narrative of the ongoing issues of racial prejudice of that time, but avoids speaking for African Americans. Which has a troubling history within Colonialism and novels of Empire. Her decision to use a white, child narrator acknowledges the limits of what we can know.

Bret Anthony Johnston, a Harvard fiction teacher, writes in the article Don’t Write What You Know, the opposite challenge. His main point is that writers, especially developing writers, are hindered by only writing from the perspective of their race, gender or experience. It’s his opinion, that staying inside what we know inhibits imagination. As an exercise and a concept, writing what you don’t know excels as a tool for increasing imaginative ideas and creating stories that are not just a mimicry of one’s own life. Nevertheless, there are complexities that can be encountered when doing this. Harper Lee did not pretend she knew what it was to be a black person suffering from racism in the 1930’s, because she simply can not know what that feels like. Furthermore, how well are white people able to represent the oppression of another group, and should they? Harper Lee acknowledges with great dexterity the difficulty and racisms that can be present in white representations of oppressed groups pain.

Imagination can fail when a dominant group tries to write about a marginalised one. Where the Rain Gets In is the second novel of Adrian White. For the duration of the story we inhabit the perspective of Katie McGuire, who writes for an Irish newspaper. She is a tough, ambitious and a complicated woman. Adrian does well in portraying a realistic person and woman until he comes to her fears. The thought process he gives Katie when she encounters two distant, male figures on a foggy bridge late at night, are masculine. “She thought about what she had on her – very little apart from some loose change in her purse. But then it occurred to her that it might not be money they wanted.” Throughout the book Katie encounters, undermines and fights sexism and harassment in a variety of ways as she achieves success in a male dominated workplace. It is then especially a let down that her thoughts are so unrealistic. She would be afraid of rape first and foremost. Gendered violence is still a high concern for women as it is a frequent fear and reality for women in patriarchal societies. Female readers are not going to be unaware of these realities either. Adrian has portrayed his own order of concerns as a man and not written the thoughts realistic to women or Katie. As he is is not part of a marginalised group (women) he is out of touch with their concerns. The author has written an interesting story but the limits of what he knows become obvious in this passage.

And yet writing what we don’t know does still has merit. We can encounter issues of (in)authenticity and Colonialism when taking on the voice of others. But what limited stories we would write if we only wrote from our gender, age group or experience. Science fiction and fantasy are two genres that would be particularly non existent without imagination.

At some point in our writing development it helps if we go beyond what we have encountered in our own lives and imagine an experience wider than our reality so as to write interesting stories. This is not always successful without further research. But, it can be done. With a tactful and researched approach, limitations of experience and ignorance can be addressed and wild stories can still be written.

Rachael Nielson

Rachael was born in Melbourne but has given up claiming it as the reason she is genetically predisposed to being cool, and now claims Canberra as her home. She finished a Bachelor of Writing at the University of Canberra in 2014. Rachael has also been on an exchange trip to Oxford University in the UK. She often get asked what she writes but the nuisances of feminist politics and doomed relationships are not so easily summed up. But they are nevertheless, her undying focus. She can say that she writes fiction and non-fiction but never poetry. Her work has been published by the ACT Writers Centre, Curio and Woroni. Find her on Twitter @rachaelandjane and on her blog http://rachaelnielsen.wordpress.com

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