Not Writing What You Know

Posted on 30/03/2012

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Since I’ve taken the last couple weeks or so to horrendously procrastinate on writing anything of decent value—besides a short story I wrote that will be published in April—I’ve managed to spend a lot of time doing nothing at all every day of the week. In that time, I’ve given a lot of thought to the actual concept of writing and how it’s actually done. I managed to sit my behind down in my computer chair and plot out and rewrite a sizable excerpt of a novel that I had (mostly) finished during NaNoWriMo. Naturally, and crushingly, I still wasn’t pleased with it, despite reassurances of the contrary regarding it and the other short story by authors and other students alike, but this seems to be a trend in artistic endeavors.

So I’ve tabled that, barring the revision statement I have to do regarding it for my creative writing class (which I am also procrastinating on so hard). I just couldn’t get the words to flow together well, the world to seem convincing and non-derivative, and the characters from being mishmashes of personality flaws that I’ve pulled out of a hat. It’s an extremely scary thing seeing a character you’ve created and feeling absolutely fucking nothing about her suffering.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about writing, taking classes about writing, writing strange metanarratives about writing like the one you’re currently feasting your eyes on. Since I’m on the fast track of an English degree, I’ve probably spent more time doing the former three instead of doing something actually interesting, like writing about space pirates. But from all of the classes and essays I’ve taken and read, the most important piece of advice I’ve received either directly or indirectly from authors and teachers is thus:

WRITE THINGS

An average day for me consists of going to school for a while, working a bit and then going home and browsing the internet until I play Dota 2 for seventeen hours. Pants are optional at that point, but that’s hardly relevant. What is relevant is that not ONE SINGLE PART of that daily routine consists of me putting virtual pen to screen paper and scribbling out some nonsense. Hell, it doesn’t even consists of me playing the stacks of unplayed video games I have lying around, which will be oh so crucial if I actually decide to become a games journalist like I keep telling myself I will be. I think part of it is some form of twisted self-loathing; my writing doesn’t match up to the writing of the many talented journalists that I follow, the novels I browse and the short stories I eat.

Rationally, I know this is stupid. I’m not sure what sort of convoluted idealism I picked up when I was a kid that made me expect my first drafts of everything is the equivalent of me shitting diamonds, but that’s how it is. And I think what I need to do is, instead of insulating myself in my bubble of isolation, is actually try: pitch things to gaming sites, write some short stories, figure out how editing works. I can’t be John Green, Tolkien or Dave Eggers right off the bat. I just need to figure out something I can write. All of my teachers, in addition to the first main point, also dumped this phrase on me:

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

And its more expanded, more apt cousin:

WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW

That phrase is bullshit. Both of those phrases are bullshit. What I know is not interesting at all, why would I want to write about it? Sure, I have an understanding of things some people won’t (which is interesting, I guess), like the transhumanism kick I’ve been on for the last month or so. I’m not an interesting person, from a homogeny viewpoint; I’m a white, 18-year-old cisgendered male who’s slightly queer but not distressingly so. I’m not a diversity hire, I haven’t come from poverty, for all intents and purposes, I am well-adjusted.

Because of that, I’d readily accept the fact that I don’t know anything. Sure, I know enough about Magic: the Gathering to talk someone’s ear off about it, but where will that get me with writing fiction? Where would that get me with writing about games? I see authors who readily post extremely interesting things about video games, thought-provoking, insightful essays about literary theory and other things. I wrote two essays about the basics and then I stuck my head in the sand, overwhelmed by stress and the force of my own expectations. The dirt is still marked with the shuffling of my uncomfortable feet.

Fantasy and science fiction focuses on negative emotions a lot, despite the inherent idealism of both genres. It’s probably just a symbol of the times, disillusionment with idealism and an overall sense of pessimism, but a lot of fantasy works rely on fear, anger and sadness to drive the plot. Strife drives plots, not peace.

I don’t know fear. I’ve never had to feel the fear of being afraid to step out of your house because of life-threatening, dangerous fear. I’ve never had to feel the fear taking me over until there is nothing left except the fear, nothing left and nothing matters. Fate has been kind to me, and has granted me that particular mercy. But I’m still driven by some twisted desire, like a thrill-seeker; that quietly, insidiously rational part of my brain saying that I will never convincingly write someone else’s fear until I’ve experienced it.

I don’t know anger. I’ve felt the occasional bursts of righteous fury, when the injustice was too great to be complicit in silence. But I’ve never felt the kind of anger that defines most novel protagonists, the kind that channels that anger into the strength of character needed to kill or defeat the object of that anger. I’ve never felt that anger, but I imagine I will, some day in the future.

I don’t know sadness. Perhaps I’ve been blessed in this regard. I didn’t have to experience the depression that seems oh so crushingly common in today’s society. I take my occasional melancholy and the bursts of dysphoria as much preferable to the hellish nature of depression. But how am I supposed to write about someone’s depression if I’ve never felt it for myself?

If I can think of one thing that I’ve learned from introspection (emo rock and Dota 2) is that this is the goddamn stupidest thing ever. So tear down the idea of writing what you know, because it’s rubbish. It’s impossible. You can’t write about the seventeen moons of Te’thorisht and its four-legged beasts that feed off the hunger of others because it’s inherently impossible to know them. Here’s an alternative distilled writing catch-phrase.

WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND

It’s as simple as that. Being a stereotypical introverted nerd shut-in (not really but okay), I crave understanding. I want to know people! I want to understand them! I can’t write characters by tossing traits into a blender and hoping a cohesive person comes out of it in the end. I want to meet people, I want to know their joys, their hurts, what they take pride in. I want to create people, see their personalities unfurl across pages and time. I want to understand.

Being a self-loathing ass won’t help me improve, both in my writing and in my relationships with others. Understanding concepts, games, people, characters: that, beyond all else, is the key.

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