Write what you know? Bollocks!
By Geoffrey Dow
Some 35 years ago, Harlan Ellison wrote that “writers take tours in other people’s lives.” He meant that it is a mistake for a reader to presume any story is autobiographical, or that a writer’s “real” self or opinions can be gleaned from a work of fiction.
In recent decades it has become a conviction in some “serious” literary and critical circles that the adage, write what you know be treated as a Commandment rather than just quite sensible advice that a writer pay close attention to the world and people around them. This advice turned ideology has led to a great outpouring of well-written but mostly pretty tedious stories about writers and their suffering.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach to fiction or drama, but there is everything wrong with the insistence that all fiction and drama should take that confessional road to story-telling.
Truth is, most writers prefer to look out, rather than in, and so do most readers. And, looking out, writers must be forever “taking tours in other people’s lives”. To put it in more contemporary terms, they imagine the other.
Or you could just say, they make stuff up. Readers are blessed by the works of Jane Austen and Alistair MacLeod, but we need our Tolstoys and Tolkiens too.
Carl Dow is a writer of the second school, smelting character and story from the mines of his own lived life, but just as much from the lives and experiences of others. In his new post, Thinking Like a Woman, Carl explains one way that the act of creative empathy can come about.
The Old Man’s Last Sauna
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