Don’t “write what you know”…

“Bad books on writing and thoughtless English professors solemnly tell beginners to “Write What You Know”, which explains why so many mediocre novels are about English professors contemplating adultery.” Joe Haldeman

“Write what you know” is one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice given to aspiring writers, and one of the most dangerous. Dangerous, because it’s often taken to mean that your first novel should be a thinly disguised autobiography. This may seem like an easy way to start, writing about the things that are closest to you, but in fact the opposite is true. Fictionalising your own life is a very difficult trick to pull off.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, we are not really very good at being objective about ourselves. That’s why people don?t like to hear their own voices on a recording: because how we sound in our own heads is very different to how we sound to other people. “To see ourselves as others see us” may be a gift, but it is also a bit of a shock. However self-aware we might think we are, it is difficult to portray ourselves in fiction with any great insight or objectivity.

That’s not to say that we believe ourselves to be perfect. Most writers try to depict themselves “warts and all” (but you should beware the ?Mary Sue?). Unless they are very skilled, though, their character will begin to take over, demanding attention like a small child. An author’s incarnation in their own story distorts everything around them. When you write fiction you are creating a world; your power is absolute. You can turn the sky red, set the seas on fire. You are God. As Flaubert said, “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

(Our lack of objectivity has another side effect: people generally don’t like to read fictionalised versions of themselves written by others, even if the writer thinks the portrayal is complimentary. Be very careful if you are thinking of basing characters closely on your friends and family. They may not be flattered, or respond in the way you expect.)

There’s a bigger problem with basing your story on your own life though, one that goes beyond character and lies deep in the nature of art itself. Take for example Michelangelo’s David, widely considered to be one of the finest sculptures ever made. That giant marble body appears life-like, idealised perhaps but nonetheless realistic. In fact he is unnatural, his upper half abnormally large compared to his lower. David is 5 metres tall, and as we gaze up at him from the perspective of a mere human he would look wrong if he shared our proportions. It is because he is exaggerated that he is beautiful.

Art by its nature is artifical, and fiction is no exception. Even the most “realistic” dramas, kitchen sink plays or soap operas, are heightened, manipulated and composed. If they actually imitated real life they would seem strange to us, they wouldn’t feel true, they wouldn’t look right. The great novelists describe, discuss and dissect what is to be alive, to be human, but not by mirroring it exactly. Instead, they distil our experience, concentrate it into essence, so that we can better understand it.

The risk in turning your life story into a novel is that you will include things just because that’s what happened. This is fine for history or biography, but makes for very dull fiction. Incidents that are important to you, because you were there, because it was you to whom they happened, will seem irrelevant and uninteresting to your readers if they don’t form part of a coherent narrative. You may find, too, that reality cramps your imagination, that it stops your story from really flying.

Of course it’s not impossible to write a good autobiographical novel, just very difficult. As a child during the Second World War, J.G. Ballard spent two years in an internment camp in Shanghai. This experience is described in one of his best novels, Empire of the Sun. However Ballard was in his fifties when he wrote it, with a score of books already under his belt. He also made significant changes to real events: his protagonist, unlike Ballard, gets separated from his parents, and must fend for himself at the camp.

Ballard’s childhood haunts all of his work, but he did not attempt to address it directly until he was at the height of his powers. The novel is an entirely different genre to autobiography, and this is why writing an autobiographical novel takes great skill: because it is one form masquerading as another. Beginners are advised to start with something easier, like telling a story they have made up. Or if you have had a fascinating life and simply want to share it with people, then write a memoir.

So if you are not going to write about your own life, what should you write about? The answer will be in my next post…