Beginning writers are always advised to "write what you know" — but what does that even mean? Does it mean just writing really thinly-veiled autobiography? And what if you're writing about events on distant planets?
Top image: Star-Maker by Olaf Stapledon.
Over at the New York Times Sunday Book Review, there's a great pair of mini-essays about this widespread advice, by Notes on a Scandal author Zoe Heller and The Reluctant Fundamentalist author Mohsin Hamid. And both authors say this advice is actually much broader than it looks at first.
In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people's experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources. The problem with my highwayman story, it seems safe to say, was that I had drawn on none of them. It didn't necessarily matter that I had never robbed a stagecoach. But it did matter that I had not troubled myself to find out, or even partially imagine, anything about what robbing a stagecoach might entail.
The other, subtler error I made — and continued to make for a long time afterward — was to suppose that translating experiential knowledge into fiction was a simple, straightforward, even banal business. For most writers, it actually takes a lot of hard work and many false starts before they are in a position to extract what is most valuable and interesting from their autobiographies.
And Hamid adds:
Olaf Stapledon's "Star Maker" ... seems surely to be a case of writing what you don't know. There is no record of Stapledon leaving the earth, traveling through space as a disembodied consciousness, encountering and melding with other life-forms and civilizations and eventually with the stars and with the universe itself. Yet that is precisely what our protagonist does in this 1937 novel, among the greatest pieces of science fiction ever written. Stapledon reaches for, and seems to touch, something that is, for lack of a better word, divine. His is a spectacular imaginative and empathetic achievement....
[Yet] "Star Maker," an epic about the possibility for finding union at the edge of universal conflict, cannot but have sprung from Stapledon's own experience of being in Europe after the First World War and on the eve of the Second.
I also love the bit where Hamid says, "I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn't just my mirror, it's my astral projection device." The whole thing is well worth reading. [New York Times Sunday Book Review]