Hmm…once I took a creative writing course where we were only supposed to copy the form of other authors’ writing.
We read Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and then we were supposed to copy his idiosyncratic style in our own essays. I feel like I didn’t get much out of that semester.
I think all writing advice has to be contextual. Taken to its extreme, “Write what you know” is terrible advice, since it precludes so much of the imagination. But there are other times when it makes sense as something to do. It really depends on what the person is trying to write.
My argument with any writing advice is when it becomes unblinking dogma (and when the goal of writing becomes the production of only one thing). Many people are looking for quick answers, or “the right way to do it,” which is how we end up with folk endlessly parroting things like “Show, don’t tell” and “Write what you know”—or even “Realism sucks,” “Prose has to be difficult to be good,” etc. Writing is, thankfully, a much larger realm of activity than any of those individual pursuits.
I ranted about “write what you know” on twitter a few days ago – it’s usually not even used as advice, but an insult, akin to “don’t quit your day job” in its assumption of privilege. who the fuck are you to tell people what to spend their time writing about? if worded as “learn about the subjects about which you plan to write” it has all the positive aspects of the former (getting educated on your material so you aren’t wrong on things you intend to be right about) without any of the fucking high-horse deigning to judge who can write about what.
i never heard the 2nd of the two applied to writing though
All writing advice *should* be contextual, agreed. Though I think “write what you know” is asserted in one way or another in a lot of writing contexts, sometimes in the form of “do more research.” What’s the worst piece of contextually relevant writing advice you’ve received?
I definitely agree with you, Brooks, that “write what you know” tends to be a particularly obnoxious piece of advice, right up there with “show, don’t tell.” Both assume that all writing should be personal expression / mimetic realism. And while I have nothing against personal expression / mimetic realism in theory, I have a lot against the assumption that all writing should be such.
The real problem is that there exists so much pressure to make so much writing turn out the same.
Yes, workshop participants are quick to assume that 1) they know the secret workings of the human heart, and 2) the goal of all fiction is to be plausible. As well as 3) that characters are real people. (They aren’t.)
I don’t do drugs, but isn’t that why people keep a supply?
All actual in-person advice I’ve received was piece-specific, regarding a particular work, and none of it was especially egregious. Usually stuff like, “This feels like it could be expanded or opened up a bit,” and I’m like, Well, yeah, it could be expanded: it’s only five hundred words.
Thankfully no one who’ve I’ve dealt with personally has hit me with the big clichés: “I see that you’ve written a good amount, but I want to make sure you know that X and X and X and X and X and Y are true.”