Is there a more frightening English phrase – apart from ‘terms and conditions’ – than ‘Write what you know’? As if all any aspiring author has to do is sit in a coffee shop with her laptop and splurge out her daily life. An excuse for self-obsessed writing.
But it’s the best advice.
What do we all know? Love; fear; joy; betrayal; peace; anger. The nervy boredom of waiting for test results: the thrill of good news. Amid the mind-numbing routine of daily life – the unexpected pleasure of a stranger’s ‘Have a good day’.
Okay: so far, so Pollyanna-ish.
But what else do we have to go on? Facts can only take us so far. I’ve been researching the invention of the X-ray, and was intrigued to find out that it was discovered by accident by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. But my research can’t tell me how he felt, when he saw the picture of his hand on a screen, the skin and flesh glowing, his bones dark lumps. Later he took an X-ray of his wife’s hand, showing her wedding ring. How did she feel, to be subjected to this new, strange process? Did she agree to do it out of love; fear – or curiosity?
But to write what you know the writer must be brave: because ‘Write what you know’ is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ in disguise. If we follow this advice we must put ourselves on the page – and bear the consequences. But if we want our readers to believe in the world we’re creating, and the characters who live there, we have no choice.
‘The biggest challenge a writer has is not to be careful,’ says novelist Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of My Name is Lucy Barton. She adds, ‘There are pieces of me in every single character…because that’s my starting point, I’m the only person I know.’
I’m writing about the life of a woman I’ve never met – could never meet. She lived under a brutal regime in the Congo Free State, over a hundred years ago. The challenge of doing justice to her life keeps me awake at night. It’s hard, and risky – but safe writing is not interesting to read – or to write.
Surely it’s more interesting to get under the skin of someone else: try to find out what makes them tick; what thrills and frightens them; who and what they love; or hate. Isn’t that the ultimate act of writing: connection with a fellow-human, whose life at first glance is nothing like our own?
Time to take the plunge. Imagine. Connect. Write what you know.