Write What You Know: A Dubious Dictum?

We have heard this dictum from writing teachers–certainly, sage advise for reporters and journalists, but rather nonsensical when it comes to creative writing where the imagination is empowered in the breach of the known, indeed, to venture where no novelist has gone before. The essence of fiction and poetry is to behave and to think as our characters, most of them completely different than we are–different sex, different ethnic background, different traits, likes and dislakes.  This dictum would have me never writing about a farmer because I have never lived on a farm, never writing about a first-person male character because I am female, never writing about Borneo because I have never been to Borneo, never write about ancient Etruscans, and so on. If this was truly sound advice, Jean Auel would not have ventured to imagine Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals of the Ice Age in her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear. Extensive research is the key. Do your research and you can write about anything. Yet there will still be something you do not know; you cannot know. Let your imagination fill in the plot, conflict, characters and the blanks in the historical record.

What if Tolkien had written only philological articles and not ventured into Middle-earth? Assuredly, Tolkien brought his Anglo-Saxon scholarship and his World War I experience to bear upon his mythical creations.  Even a cursory review of the jewels of world literature reveal how bland and prosaic this dictum is, so simplistic, so ordinary that it cannot create the extraordinary.  Taking this dictum seriously demolishes the edifice of not only the fantasy genre, but all fiction.

From the beginning I blatantly ignored the dictum. I had the temerity to describe places where I had never been, bolstered by my research, films, and photographs. That is not to say that an author should not authenticate his fictional reality by visiting his settings, if possible, but it is not necessary unless he has written an article for a travel magazine.  Jean Auel could not buy a ticket to Ice Age Europe. I wrote a short story about Chernobyl, never having set my big toe an inch inside the former Soviet Union. The writing temperament encompasses empathy, desire to get under the skin of other people, suppositions about human motivations and the ability to envision the back story behind whatever is observed. True lies are inescapable. They are imagination–the one indispensable component of the creative process.


4 responses to this post.

  1. I never thought of it that way, well put!


    • What were your thoughts previously on this dictum? Welcome to the pond. Based on your belief in the virtues of freedom of religion and freedom from religion and your statement that you enjoy debunking literal interpretations of biblical scripture, I think my novel Delayed Reaction would be right up your alley. A non-fiction book that I just finished reading that also may be of interest to you isThe Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. I invite you to subscribe.


  2. I can’t seem to properly browse this page from my iphone!!!!


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