By Greg Herren
My first creative writing class in college was a disaster.
It was also the first time in my life I was given the seminal writing advice “write what you know.” (I got a C in the course, and I often tell this story in interviews; my instructor called me into his office after I turned in my first short story and told me I would never be a writer, but as an English major he would have me a C rather than the F I deserved. Over thirty novels and fifty short stories later, I find that amusing now. Back then, it was horrific.)
This is one of the standard tropes from every single creative writing class, every book on writing, and I seriously wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard it, seen it, read it, or have actually said it.
It took many years to understand what that truly meant. At the time, I thought it meant that writers couldn’t write about anything outside of their experience. This confused me, obviously: if that was the top rule of writing, how on earth were genres like science fiction and fantasy and horror and crime possible? How could anyone know what it was like to be a vampire? How could men write women, and vice versa? I just assumed that it was just another one of those reasons I was destined to fail as a writer. I see this pop up occasionally on social media—usually in some brou-ha-ha when someone who is a part of a minority group marginalized within our society complains about their life and experience being appropriated and reinterpreted by someone not a part of that community. Twitter wars erupt, blog and opinion pieces are written, people throw insults at each other on Facebook. As the controversy rages for the umpteenth time, someone will usually smugly compare the marginalized community to vampires and werewolves and space aliens and serial killers, and that “write what you know” is bullshit advice for that very reason.
I usually make note of the author who posts that to make sure I never waste my time reading their work.
Because they are completely missing the point—as I did for so long.
Write what you know doesn’t mean you can’t write about shape-shifters or space travel or vampires; it doesn’t you can’t write characters who are outside of your experience.
What I came to understand over the years, of writing my own work, working as an editor, and reading thousands of books for pleasure, is what my writing teachers never explained was that “write what you know” wasn’t about subject matter or story, but about writing using your own experiences to write honestly.
Use your own emotional history to make your characters realistic.
The best advice I got about character creation came from a rejection letter I received from a magazine editor—who also encouraged me to keep writing and submitting to him. The main character in my story was a monstrous woman who gets her just come-uppance, and he said simply, “Just remember, even Hitler loved his dogs.”
And that’s the truth. Even the most monstrous people have pets they care about, friends, and family. How many times have you seen someone being interviewed on the news about the murderer next door say something along the lines of, “He was always so friendly and nice”?
I’ve always been a firm believer that story comes from character, and that character should always be the starting place for any writer. It doesn’t always start with the character, of course; sometimes I get an idea for a story—“you know, it would be really cool to write a story from the point of view of a landlord who begins to suspect his tenant might be the serial killer terrorizing the city”—but before I can actually write that story, I need to know who those two characters are. What kind of person is the landlord? Why is he/she renting out a space in their home? How do they feel about the tenant before the suspicion starts? How does the suspicion start, and does the landlord feel confident in the suspicion, or not trust his instincts? Why would he be so confident, or why would he not trust his instincts? The character will slowly start to come together from these questions, and the questions I have about the character need answering, because knowing who the landlord is will shape the story and how it unfolds—and most importantly, how it ends.
And when I write the story finally, I need to write the story as though I myself am the character of the landlord since I am telling the story from his point of view, and thus, I have to become that character, pulling from my own experience to make his experiences, his emotions, his reactions, seem real.
I once jokingly referred to it as ‘method writing’, as a play on the Stanislavski school of acting (which holds that a performance is culled from the actor’s own experiences; forcing the actor to go deep inside his/her own history and life and experience to summon forth the necessary reactions and emotions. As a writer, I am doing it on the page rather than the stage). This works for me, although it does have it does drawbacks.
When I’m writing something dark where my main character has to deal with something incredibly difficult and painful—such as death of a loved one—it can take me to a dark place that sometimes is hard to snap back from.
On the other hand, using my own personal experiences to write my post-Katrina novel Murder in the Rue Chartres was incredibly cathartic, since it gave me the opportunity for channeling my anger and depression and shock, the unexpected mood swings, the horror of the reality of what happened, allowing the reader to experience these complex and conflicting things through the eyes of my character. Writing that book helped me to work through a lot of my emotional issues in the wake of the levee failure and what happened to my home city.
I was very proud that a local book reviewer called it ‘the most honest depiction of life in post-Katrina New Orleans published.’
So ‘write what you know’ is the best writing advice I can share with someone. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it takes you places you don’t want to revisit, but it will also help you create your best work.
GREG HERREN is the award-winning author of over thirty novels and fifty short stories. He has edited twenty anthologies, including Blood on the Bayou, the 2016 Bouchercon anthology fundraiser for the New Orleans Public Library System. His most recent novel, Garden District Gothic, was published in September. He lives in New Orleans.