14 January 2009

Embracing Life Imitating Art...or not

Based on the comments to yesterday's post, it seems as though the 'yeas' have it thus far, not a dissenter in the bunch. One should and can with free conscience write from one's personal experiences was the consensus.

Write what you know.

I'm not buying it. At the risk of alienating what little audience I have, I strongly believe that the idea of "writing what you know" is one of the most overused and under-considered ideals of the literary community.

What does it even mean, to write what you know? How much does Stephen King really know about killer clowns or surviving the apocalypse? Can Meg Cabot know what it's like to be a princess, a mediator, or a psychic? What does Ann Coulter know about anything? I mean... no, actually I did mean that.

My point is that if I wrote only what I knew, well let's just say that I'm not going to limit myself like that. I think that a more appropriate adage would be "write what you can imagine knowing," because in the end, I believe writing comes down to imagination, not knowledge.

Let me put it another way.

I don't know what it's like to run for my life. However, I've had moments where I thought that I was about to die, and I've seen movies and read books about, and witnessed firsthand, how people behave when they fear for their lives. Using that information, I was able to imagine what it'd be like for my character to run for her life--how she'd feel, what she'd be thinking, etc.

I could probably write a dissertation on the subject so I should probably do the smart thing and walk away. But let me leave you with this: I can make a very persuasive argument for one of the leading causes of writing failures being a lack imagination used properly.

Maybe another day.

Food for thought: What makes or breaks an "author" in your opinion? That is, what allows some people to a complete story (and even write them well) while others fall short?


Anonymous said...

You certainly bring up a valid point. Write what you know... In a life so small, the literal interpretation of the cliche would indeed limit your subject matter drastically. But, then, when do writers ever speak solely in the literal? And, since we have veered into the realm of personal understandings...

My own interpretation of the phrase "write what you know" was always more geared towards an emotional or philosophical knowledge, rather than an experiential one. As a fantasy writer, myself, I know I'll never live the type of life I write, I'll never see the type of sights I describe, I'll never be faced with the specific situations I'm imagining.

But, there are aspects, very basic and simplified aspects, within my fictional world that I can and do relate to on an intimate level. Being in a strange place, encountering strange things, making strange decisions. Your imagination can take you here, can provide the fantastic and bizarre and rare that your actual life would never be capable of doing, but all your imagination can really do is provide a general background and setting.

You can imagine what it is like to ride on the back of a dragon, imagine the wind as it blows through your hair, imagine the way the world looks from so far up, but the feeling of joy and fear and amazement that comes with the first time you do something you never thought you would be able to or were too afraid to consider, before, that true emotional response? If you leave it up to the imagination, it would be dull, shallow, lackluster and unconvincing.

It can be done. I'm sure one of the measures of a true professional would be the ability to fool his or her audience into believing the emotions are real. But, unless they come from a place inside, from your own personal emotional experiences, no matter how pretty you make it and how believable it is, it's still going to be fake.

As for your parting question - I'd first like to point out that you make a refreshingly clear example of the difference between an "author" and a "writer". I happen to be a writer with no intentions of ever becoming an author.

I think the difference was first pointed out to me by a friend's query to me upon finding out that I had written a significant portion of an ongoing story.

"Why write a book?" he asked.

"A book?" I replied. "I'm not writing a book. I'm writing a story."

"What's the difference?" he said.

"A book is written for other people," I said. "This story is written for me."

Authors write books with the intention of having people read them. That said, I think one of the main aspects that make a successful author is a strong enough desire to share the world you have written to keep you going until the very end.

With a writer, the urge to finish the story is more of a basic need to structure the images and happenings that are bombarding their imaginations. There is not so much of a desire for outside acceptance as there is a desire to clarify a story to themselves. Which is why most writers, sticking to the definition I've placed on the word, of course, feel a lot less pressure and disappointment when faced with an incomplete story and indeed may never actually finish anything they've started.

A successful author, defined in your post as one who has completed an entire manuscript (whether or not it's done well aside), needs to desire the outside acceptance, needs to have a strong urge to share their work, for people to acknowledge their effort, otherwise they will fall short and inevitably revert to the humble status of a storyteller. An author must want to succeed before they can ever obtain success.

Samantha Elliott said...


I'm honored that you chose to make my comments pages home to your new blog. The dance you just did with semantics was beautiful, and I'm glad I could host it.

As to your remarks, it seems that on the subject of knowledge vs. imagination we seem to be saying the same thing, although you said it more descriptively. And regarding authors, is it me being defensive or do you believe that becoming an "author" is a vanity project? While I can admit that it requires some vanity, I might take issue with the position that it is the sole, or even predominant, component.

Just wondering...

Anonymous said...

Sam -- May I call you Sam?

You speak as if vanity is a bad thing. Given, its connotation is historically negative, yes, but I believe that a good dose of vanity, along with a pinch of selfishness and a dash of arrogance, is an incredibly necessary ingredient to the self-confidence and drive required of an author. And, yes, I do think that in order to successfully finish writing a story and fight for it to become a book, I think an author has to have a healthy need for others to validate their confidence, just to add some spice to the dish. If an author isn't seeking this, in some abstract form or another, then what other purpose -do- they have for trying so damn hard? The money? That would certainly be a disappointment.

Megan said...

When people say write what you know, I always tend to think they mean the emotional aspect. Yes, I draw from my life, but I don't know what it's like to live life as a slave, join the Peace Corp, or be on the run from the law. But I can make my characters more realistic by basing their personalities on people I know. Because really...does J.K. Rowling know what it's like to go to a magical boarding school? Did Tolkien actually have conversations with Hobbits? I highly doubt that.

As to what makes or breaks an author...does having a finished novel make a person an author? Cause I have yet to finish a novel. I've written stories to be sent off to publication (and got rejected!) but does that make me an author?

I actually think that the word author has such a high society conotation. I tend to think of authors as dead people who wrote books. Tolkien was an author. Hemmingway...author. J.K. Rowling...writer. Yes, people do use the word author to refer to the person who wrote the published book, but should we be the ones who define the exact term of what makes an author and what makes a writer?

Before NaNoWriMo 2008, I saw a lifejournal post stating that "real writers" don't do stuff like that. That real writers spend their entire first draft aiming for substance instead of getting the whole thing out on paper in quantity. I highly disagree with that.

Real writers, in my opinion do their best to listen to the muses and get the story written to the best of their ability. Real writers write the story they want to read.

So I think the true difference between writers and authors is a little bit of vanity. And yes, I do agree a bit with Kage here. It's not that this vanity is a bad thing. Writers write the book they want to read. Authors go the extra step and attempt to publish that novel so that others can read it. And people read it cause they were WAITING for THAT story to come out.

Though I respectfully disagree with Kage on the difference between a book and a story.