John Grisham was a trial lawyer.
Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in World War I.
Theodore Seuss Giesel stole Christmas eight years in a row.
These are great authors, and all were blessed with the gift of experience. It is a pattern that we often see in successful books. You want to publish a book about cops? Who better to write it than a policeman? You want to sell a book about working in a classy restaurant’s kitchen? Who better to write it than a chef?
These kinds of actions add a legitimacy to the work which is difficult to fake. If all lawyers enjoy your legal thriller, then it must be pretty good. If soldiers adore your war story, then it must be pretty true to life. And you can advertise that fact, and get the public at large to appreciate the book as authoritative. There is power in having real experience in a subject.
So Should all Books be Written by Someone with Real Life Experience?
Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “Of course they should. Haven’t you heard the expression ‘Write what you know’?”
Oh, everyone’s heard that old yarn. People have been blindly prescribing it to new writers for a hundred years at least.
Mr. DA: “Which tells you how important it is, naturally. The world is an awfully big place, and so it is up to each of us to describe our own little corner of it.”
Mr. DA: “No one is skilled enough to describe the whole. Each should stick to writing subjects over which he has a lone monopoly.”
I can see this game is using the “speed rules”.
Hold it Right There
But you’re wrong, Mr. Devil’s Advocate. Not all writing is autobiographical. And if it was, it would be a terrible discipline, full of whiny twats selling the idea of how interesting their lives are. That is not how good books are made. Writing a good book requires humility and a desire to explore what we don’t know, or, if it is a truly great book, what we can never know.
No one alive today can ever know what it was like to live through the Revolutionary War, but that didn’t stop David McCullough from writing about it.
We can never know what it’s like to live in a two dimensional universe, but that didn’t stop Edwin Abbott from writing about it.
And we can never know what it would be like the see the world from a robot’s perspective, but that didn’t stop Isaac Asimov from writing about it.
Nobody knows what it’s like to be an elf or a dwarf, or a hive mind of a million computers, or a horse wandering alone through the desert, but they are all things we can write about and have written about. We write so that we can be unbound from the singular life we live.
In the words of Anne Tyler,
I write because I want more than one life; I insist on a wider selection. It’s greed, plain and simple. When my character joins the circus, I’m joining the circus.
So much inflated effort has been put into the “write what you know” camp that great authors have had to tear it down from time to time.
Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words.
I’m not a fan of “write what you know.” If you don’t know, find out. I knew nothing about the Bible before I started writing The Year of Living Biblically. That was kind of the point—to learn.
Use your imagination. Trust me, your lives are not interesting. Don’t write them down.
I didn’t get into this business so that people could get to know me. I got into this business so that people would get to know the characters I have created—to sympathize with them, remember them, and make them real. Writing what you know is, by definition, not a creative act, and, therefore, not actually writing at all.
But What about Being Authoritative?
Mr. DA: “I’m sorry, but weren’t you the one who started this post by lauding real-world experience as a key ingredient to success? Don’t you want to be authoritative?”
Having real-world experience is ONE possible way to get the grit you need to tell your story. There are plenty of authors who do without it.
Mr. DA: “But what about Grisham? What about Hemingway?”
Yes, John Grisham was once a trial lawyer. That is not up for debate. But do you honestly think that anything he experienced as a trial lawyer was as exciting as one of his legal thrillers? Not every trial is a well-played game of chess where new revelations await around every corner and the stakes are unthinkably high. Not every lawyer is a hero, struggling against the a stacked legal system where the odds are continually against him until the last conceivable second.
The Grisham thrillers may be rooted in his experience in the courtroom, but they still have more in common with an episode of Perry Mason than they do with the mundane realm of real life.
Mr. DA: “Ouch.”
And Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, for crying out loud. He was just a utility, ferrying the actual warriors away from the battlefield. The only action he ever saw was the time he was hit with a mortar while handing out chocolate to the Italian troops—an event that landed him in a hospital and essentially ended his service. He spent his entire life writing about the brave men that he could never be. His experience was not theirs.
Mr. DA: “Touched a nerve, did I? What about Dr. Seuss, then?”
I’m afraid all of his books are literal and unbiased accounts of events which actually happened to him. And those “illustrations” of his are actually photographs.
An actual advertisement illustrated by the good doctor.
Mr. DA: “Well, I can’t disagree with photographic evidence.”
But there will never be another Dr. Seuss. His own brand of success is entirely unrepeatable, so I don’t believe his particular success can count against the point I’m trying to make.
Mr. DA: “Are you trying to say he’s the exception that proves the rule? Because you could have just said that.”
But I still have more to say.
It Came to me in a Dream
Many years ago, I had a strange nightmare. The dream was so vivid that I remember it to this day.
In it, I was stabbed in the back with a knife.
And it was more than an image. I could feel the blade sliding through my ribs, parting my flesh as it passed through me. I could feel the faintness of breath that came from having only one functioning lung, the other one collapsed, sucking on the steel every time I gasped for air. It was a visceral experience for me.
Except that it wasn’t real. I had never been stabbed in the back before, and I haven’t since. So how was my brain able to do such a good job of making me feel it? Could it be that, somewhere in my consciousness—perhaps somewhere in everybody’s consciousness—the exact feeling of being stabbed is somehow preprogrammed? After all, human noses and tongues are preconfigured. They can detect aromas and flavors—even the ones we have never encountered before. Could our bodies have the same capacity for full-body experiences, such as injuries?
Mr. DA: “I can answer that: your problem is that you’re thinking of experience as something objective. It’s not.”
But suppose that one day I am actually stabbed in the back. Won’t I know, then, if my dream was an accurate depiction of the experience?
Mr. DA: “If you ever are stabbed in the back, it will feel exactly like it did in your dream, because your brain will force it to feel that way. When the dream was first happening, your brain had to invent the feeling of being stabbed. And now that your mind has made that association, it cannot feel any other way in that situation.”
So you’re saying that our brains arbitrarily make up our sensory experience as we go along, and that our perceptions are merely a way of coping with and defining the things we encounter, rather than revealing their true nature?
Mr. DA: “Largely, yes.”
In which case, it does not matter if we have personally lived through the story we are writing, because all experience is subjective, anyway?
Mr. DA: “Uh…well…”
And that’s all the time we have for today.
Thanks for reading all the way to end. I hope this post has been illuminating.
But hey, don’t let me have the last word. Let me know what you think in the comments section.
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