What You Are And What You Know

So, lately there’s been this crazyinsane movement in science fiction where you’re only allowed to write people exactly like you.

No, of course I don’t mean that. There is a hierarchy. For instance, if you are a man, you can only write men. Women are allowed to write women and men. White women can only write white people. People of color can write men and women of color, but not, say, gay men or lesbians. Well, not if they’re straight.

If you’re looking at this with your brow wrinkled, you should be. You see, we’re not allowed to write anyone with more victimhood points than us, because we can’t “see” into their victimhood. Or put it another way victimhood points make you opaque.

Forget all the gay men who have praised to the sky the woman who wrote The Persian Boy (and others.)

Forget all the men who write women better than I can. (Until fifteen years ago, that was “all of them” because American women WERE totally opaque to me. [Yes, that means I can’t tell you cheated on your diet. Lucky you.])

This feeds the crazyinsane where we must care about what color/sex/orientation writers are, because only writers of otheritude write otheritude.

And then, of course, because in the life of those without empathy or imagination everyone is like them, this means people of otheritude have nothing to read.

I could call them racist/sexist/homophobic. Or I could point and make duck noises.

But I’m not going to, because I think I know where their idea came from. (Beyond Marxist theory, the fact that they’re profoundly uncreative people who work mostly in colleges, and the fact they don’t read for pleasure but as a positional good, I mean.)

I think at the root of it is that old canard “write what you know.”

You see, in our old writers’ group we had a friend (still a friend) who thought this meant “Write what you have lived.”

Since his chosen field was horror (mostly) this meant most of his attempts implied the horror with such subtlety that we were left wondering what precisely was the story. Or else the horror was entirely in his mind as a young boy. This is possible, but incredibly limiting.

His best stories came about when he tried to write something to prove to us it was bad and wrote something he’d read about/researched/seen in a movie once as a passing scene and made it the center of a story.

When we told him it was great, he’d stomp and tell us it wasn’t because it wasn’t something he “knew.”

I love the man like a brother, but there were a few times I wanted to hit him with the popcorn bowl. (Our group ate popcorn.)

But the fault isn’t his, you know. The fault is of generations of critics and school teachers and college teachers (even those who masquerade as writers) screaming “write what you know” and meaning “write your life.”

May I be blunt? Your life is not that interesting. Unless you hanker to write hearfelt little gems of everyday significance (and there is a market for that. Not big but there is) write what you are/have lived means “write mundane stuff.”

At best writing what you are/have lived means creative nonfiction. Sometimes very creative. (See Dunham, Lena.)

Now I’ve been known to read biographies and creative nonfiction, but really, is that ALL you want to read? Forever?

Most of us have never solved a murder. Most of us have never flown to other planets. (Well, there IS governor Moonbeam, after all.) Heck, most of us have never been in battle.

So, is write what you know poppycock?

In its strict interpretation? Certainly. Not even tasty poppycock.

Because what you know is not just what you have lived. What you know is what you’ve read/studied/learned.

Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s (to me) best character was based on her grandmother. The old lady never solved murder mysteries, but she did solve mysteries about why the second undermaid was walking funny and why the chauffeur was grinning, for instance. To extend it to murder mysteries was not a big stretch and Miss Marple rings TRUE.

I’ve never lived in Shakespeare’s England, but I figure my village was not much smaller (?) than his town at the time, and hell, humans are humans.

If you’ve been alive in the world and care for other people, you know how people work. Even if you are fairly self-centered there’s a wife/husband/mother/father/child you love as well as yourself and whom you understand well enough to write.

Can you write an alien? Well, have you observed another life-form? Your cat or dog? Insects? (Cathe, we need you) or fish? You can write an alien.

A REAL alien? Well, you’ve never met any, and what is real? What it needs to do is read real to your readers… who are human.

Can you write someone of another race/orientation?

Do you want to? Are you interested enough to do it? And when? Present day? If you don’t have any friends who are that race/orientation, it’s going to be an awful lot of research. If you’re willing to do it and go to primary sources, you might. If you care well enough to do it well.

Future? Who knows what will count as race in the future? Or orientation? Race 100 years ago when we knew less of genetics was covalent with nationality. My dad who is 84 still talks about the Portuguese race. (Hey, Mutt is a race!) And are you Robotsexual? People might be in 100 years.

So, there you can make up more stuff. It still has to sound reasonable. (It would be a good idea, for instance, not to have present day working class Americans drink gin. Just FYI. Beer is more their speed. Now, if you’re writing in nineteenth century England.)

What I mean is, write what you know doesn’t mean write yourself or your autobiography or your experiences. It can. But why the heck would you want that to be the only thing?

Want to write someone else?

Go for it.

Want to write somewhere else?

Go for it.

But for the love of Bob (Heinlein) STUDY what you write.

Kate (and I, and Amanda) lost a friend when Kate took the exercise of a fledgeling and wrote about it here, (mind you without names. Also the person was politically motivated, so pfui. Also had shown a tendency not to learn.)

This person wrote about an emergency room in America and I’m going to GUESS thought she knew what she was talking about.

What I mean is, she went on what Canadian news reported.

The result was sidesplittingly funny to any American, from the woman whose insurance had JUST be cancelled (like, that morning) because she was fired, and so was turned away from the emergency room (dying on the streets, we are. The emergency room sends you out to die IN THE SNOW. Also, companies who fire you don’t’ give you COBRA options. It’s… a parallel world) to the guy who is watching another guy with a medically impossible condition (at least medically impossible and still living) be examined and his details blabbed to all of the ER and who offers to give him a kidney AND IS TAKEN SERIOUSLY instead of referred to psych for evaluation.

It wouldn’t be that hard for her to ask us FIRST how these things worked here.  Might have been hard for her to believe it.  After all, the news told her…

Don’t be that person.

If you’re going to write something, take pride in work. We’ve all violated that, because there were things we thought we knew, but they were usually SMALL things. Like someone or other (coff) might have at some time used the wrong sword description in a book about musketeers or something because she believed comics.

Fans will find you. They’ll write to you. NO, TRUST ME you don’t need the grief.

Research everything you can. Then you can write what you know. You’ll still miss some things, but a fan or a hundred calling you dumb is okay, provided you can turn them into resources. “Oh, wow, you know so much. Can I call you about—”

And then you can write what you know. And not yourself. And be read by people like me, who want to read stuff that’s different from what goes on behind my eyes (okay, that’s a high standard) and don’t care what color, inny/outie variety you are or with whom you like to bump uglies.

Go for it. I want to read it.


61 thoughts on “What You Are And What You Know

  1. Not only is any given person’s life not always that interesting, writing about it is a great way to piss off any relatives who feel that they’ve been maligned.

  2. damn. I was going to write something very similar to this this week for O.G. (only reason I hadn’t yet was I thought a guy with only one published book (and one on the way!) was presumptuous to the point of hubris telling other people what to write) Sigh, now I can’t because it’ll just look like I’m stealing your thoughts. Nicely done.

  3. If I followed their advice, all I’d write are 30-something white Canadian straight males. And then they’d get angry at me for not being diverse enough.

  4. This is one of those pieces of advice that might have been said once to someone who wrote some of the nonsense that passes for news these days. And then, somehow, it became canonical, probably because it sounded good. So now reasonable writers of all races, genders, ethnicities, and disabilities are required to write only about those things? Leave the nostrums for those who need them. The rest of us will go our merry ways, goofing up occasionally but writing good and fun stories nonetheless.

  5. The emergency room anecdote was funny. On its own merits.

    It also reminded me of the time I was reading a book by a Very Famous spy novelist who wrote a tiny part of his novel in my former hometown. He wrote about two men having a chat while walking along the banks of a (real) river. The problem was that such a walk was essentially impassable due to swamp-like conditions in one area, while fences and backyards and stuff made up the rest. Big oops from my local point of view.

    He also misspelled the name of nearby town, and he spelled it the way that a Brit would. Very careless oops.

    Anyway, I guess it was so local that the vast majority of readers weren’t aware of such problems, but it bugged me anyways. Doing so in your emergency room anecdote is a horse of a different color though because everyone (well, almost….) in the US knows it is a ludicrous misrepresentation of reality.

    To your broader point, I guess this means that I am allowed to write about “precious snowflakes”, to borrow a phrase from someone or other. Borrowed from whom? SH, don’t ask, don’t tell….

  6. We hear it in history, too. So I “can’t” do African-American, Hispano, Latiana/o, Chicana/o, Asian-American, or Native American history, because, well, you know. Oh, and I can’t do military history. I can do environmental, European, and Women’s History. Thpppth. *holds hand up, palm in, fingers straight* Go read between the lines.

  7. As a child, the only place I found friends was between the covers of a book. I could identify with the aliens and being strangers in a strange land, not fitting in with the native culture. And I’ll be hanged before I allow any bigoted, privileged, half-wit snowflake to tell me that as a middle-aged, straight, white woman I can’t write about anyone else’s feelings of ‘otherness’.

    1. I try to imagine not being able to identify with being the outsider, not being able to identify with the unjustly accused, not being able to identify with the person facing death, the person assaulted, insulted… how severely lacking in perception would a person have to be? Anything that hasn’t happened to me has some, perhaps minor, analogous event that can be used to extrapolate what some “larger” thing would be like. It’s called the human experience.

        1. Who knows. It would explain a lot.

          I’ve lived “overseas” and found it more like home than places in my own country. I’ve gone through natural disasters with an infant and cats. I’ve answered an obscene phone call and been shocked at how something that should be really sincerely funnier than heck feels profoundly violating. I’ve repeatedly looked for the car after it was stolen, just in case I missed it and it was still sitting there. I’ve fainted. I’ve been put under. I’ve felt pain far far worse than childbirth. I’ve lived with long term stress. I’ve been in short term stress severe enough that I don’t know which meal is next. I’ve been stood up. I’ve worked hard and had my victory claimed by someone else. I’ve been confident. I’ve been crippled by insecurity. I’ve been happy. I’ve been depressed. I’ve been lost. I’ve grown things, and killed things, and built things and torn them down. I’ve watched the country stream by at 70 mph. I’ve seen a barn wrapped around a silo like a hot dog bun by a tornado. I’ve crawled beneath the earth. I’ve dug an “escape” tunnel. In different times and different places I’ve heard ice, bone, trees and buildings twist and scream and break. I’ve dipped into one identical airport after another. I’ve walked through a door into a wall of heat and humidity. I’ve listened to the squeak of snow at 40 below. I’ve laughed with friends and caught up with family. I’ve stood in the center of Texas, gazing through a chain link fence at the “outside” and thought about the day I’ll be stateside again.

          And yet… my life is *painfully* ordinary. If I can’t mine my extremely ordinary life in order to write about something extraordinary it’s because I’ve got NO imagination at all. Or I haven’t been paying attention at all.

          Or I’m an alien.

          1. Yes. I was going to write something very similar, but you’ve said it better. *grin* Ordinary to you and me is quite extraordinary to other folks, too, I’ve come to believe. Even the most mundane can be amazing, sometimes.

            Reminds me a bit of an old Andy Griffith radio skit, “The called it ‘football.’ “ Perspective. It’s quite a thing.

  8. Imagine a visit to the library in a world world where writers only write what we have know and have lived:

    After a fruitless search for interesting reading material, I approached the librarian for suggestions.
    “Can I help you?” she asked, smiling.
    I refrained from correcting her grammar. After all, I was the one requesting help.
    “Yes, please,” I replied. “I’m looking for something good to read, preferably something epic.”
    “Ah, I have just the thing!” she said. “Have you read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien?”
    “Never heard of him,” I replied.
    “Then let me recommend his Professor of English Literature trilogy,” she said. “It’s all about the fourteen years Tolkien spent teaching English Literature at Oxford!”
    “That sounds…boring,” I said.
    “Boring?” she asked. “You think a trilogy filled with battles to bring knowledge to undisciplined youth, duels of wit at tea time with the rest of the faculty and the ultimate quest for tenure sounds boring?”
    “You’re right,” she sighed. “It’s deadly dull. So, something exciting, you say. Hm… How about a biography? Stephen Decatur led quite an exciting military life.”
    “I’ve read it,” I said. “I’ve read all the biographies that are interesting. Don’t you have anything different?”
    “Different how?” she asked.
    “I don’t know,” I replied. “Something…made up, perhaps?”
    “What an appalling thought!” she exclaimed. “Writers can’t just make things up! They must write what they know!”
    As I turned away, I heard her muttering, “Make things up? The very idea is ridiculous!”

  9. Ah yes. One is only supposed to write what one’s personal sub-category is.

    And yet, one is also supposed to “Support Diversity”, whatever THAT means. (Generally, it seems to mean one creates a flaw-free Mary Sue of the Approved Groups.)

    Novels where every character has the same opinions and speak with the same voice are only slightly less boring than novels where everyone acts as window-dressing because the whole thing is meant to be a spec script for a surefire Hollywood blockbuster.

    1. Orson Scott Card had some great advice on writing groups one doesn’t belong to in his book on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: “Realize no matter how much research you do, you’re gonna screw something up. Usually many somethings. Take the inevitable ribbing gracefully.”

      At least, take it more gracefully than some.

      “Um, you know that Catholics don’t believe in the ‘Rapture’, per se, righ-”

      “Shut up! They’re evil religious people! Of course they believe in the Rapture! Because evil! And religious!”

      “Actually, quite a lot of denominations have very different views on-”



  10. “Write what you know” has been used too many times to stifle creativity because, well, what would you know?

    Of course, if that was the case, there would be no science fiction at all, no fantasy literature at all, and damn little horror, just to name a few.

    However, I can write about loss, love, fear, amazement, and a whole pile of other things too. I can write what I know, but I’m also going to make up a lot of stuff. 😀

  11. Well, if people write outside their little boxes and try to find out about the people in the *other* little boxes they might make friends — which could lead to miscegenation and fusion cuisine…and we certainly can’t have THAT! ( I swear… do these nutters realize they are essentially going around with a paper bag and a color bar? *shudder*)

    Also, they have to write futures where all the bigotries are still in action because otherwise how can their special characters be special unless they are oppressed? And, even more importantly, how can readers *tell* they are special if nobody in the future world CARES about skin color/gender/boinking preferences?

  12. I remember many years ago reading some little bit of advice for beginning writers stating that if you haven’t lived in a certain city (London? New York? Los Angeles?), you shouldn’t try to write a story set in it. Probably they were trying to keep young writers from thinking that just because they’ve watched X number of TV shows set in one or another major city or visited it for a day or two on vacation, they’ll be able to write a story set there intelligently. And such a prohibition is easier than trying to teach how to do research from library sources when you’re writing an article about the basics.

    But I could totally understand how some impressionable young writer could read that and take away the idea that they can’t possibly write about anything they don’t have first-hand personal experience. Which would make science fiction and fantasy writing pretty much impossible, because so much of it has to come from library research. Right now I’m working on a novel set in a lunar settlement, something I’ve sure never visited and barring major breakthroughs in life extension probably won’t ever see happen. But there are people who’ve traveled to the Moon — which is why I have a whole shelf of books by and about astronauts right by my desk, including the memoirs of moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan and Charlie Duke. (Word of warning to anybody doing primary source research on the Apollo lunar missions — Dr. Aldrin is a blunt and forthright man, sometimes to the point of Too Much Information.)

    1. I write about Vienna, Budapest, and a few other places that I did not visit in the time period I’m writing about. Were they different then? Oh, vastly. Did I do a good bit of homework to catch the differences and read up to try and catch the atmosphere? Yes. Am I comfortable about my writing? Pretty much. Would I write about modern LA or NYC? No way! There’s too many little details I’d find a way to mess up. 🙂 Even after doing library/’net research.

    2. There may be another version of this out there. “Write what you know” for your first book. That way you can worry about plotting and craft and not confuse yourself that having done a whole boatload of research is a good substitute for story.

    3. Dennis Wingo’s Gold Rush is useful about what one might find on the moon. I’m reading it very slowly.

  13. Writing what you know would mean different things to different people at different times….

    I’m a Vietnam Vet. Ex hot-rodder. Ex martial artist. Swordmaker who has studied and practiced a couple of sword arts. Ex-fisherman, hunter, hiker. Etc…….

    My military service is over 40 years out of date. The cars I had and drag raced or street raced were made in the 60s, modified and raced in the 70s.

    My best martial days were in the late 90s, my stroke ended my active sword arts study and practice. I haven’t been in the wilderness for at least fifteen years.

    My firearms knowledge is dated. I’m a revolver and 1911 nut, and really am not that familiar with a lot of the later handguns. I knew the early M16 and M14 intimately, but am a bit out of touch on the later AR15 tech.

    All of the above is dated, pretty hard to use it as is in a modern urban fantasy.

    So, I do kind of use my experience in my writing a little bit. Not “what I’ve lived”, because I certainly didn’t fight the Mongols in Hungary in 1241. Nor have I fought and killed a werewolf. Nor have I lived the future.

    But it does help to have a few things to make some stuff easier. You still have to make it interesting. I’ve seen sword fights written by longsword students that were so detailed and so boring it would bring tears even to Sarah, who has the patience of a sphinx.

    Where I get into trouble, is relationship stuff. Being a natural recluse means that writing meaningful relationship stuff is difficult, because I haven’t experienced it. Here’s where I need to study, learn from others, and try and get it right when writing.

    I guess I’ll have to break down and read some romances.

    1. Or, if you don’t want to torture yourself, try talking to your family and friends. Humans tend to have the same problems over and over, with modifications for environment — which you may have to guess at. I think it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez who said, when asked for a story idea, “a boy and girl meet, and they fall in love.” It’s a pretty good place to begin many stories.

  14. Given what I’d just read, I doubt that you’ve ever been a gay male genetically-engineered superman, yet you faked it very well. Also, Heinlein was never a teenage girl on an interplanetary voyage, and I’m pretty sure “Doc” Smith was never a multi-eyed, multi-brained draconic being, a barrel-shaped tentacled monstrosity, nor a four-dimensional creature that can live on extremely frigid worlds. Heck, he was never even an interstellar patrolman!

    Science fiction, and fiction in general, would be pretty damned dull if we refused to write the Other!

    1. H*ll, Heinlein wrote women better than I. Just because you’re something doesn’t mean you CAN write it. I mean, read the SJWs, they’re walking victims of oppression, not women.

  15. Memo 9-3546TS

    To: Field Agents Level 6 and above
    Re: Writing Identification of Shape Shifters Program Progress

    At this point, we have convinced the Science Fiction and Fantasy Community that writers should avoid writing in anything except their own voice. WISSP is working!

    The next step will be taken soon, as we identify which writers continue to produce shape shifting fiction. This list will then be used for the already authorized live-trapping program, in which we will finally capture a large number of verified shape-shifters, by their own admission (they write that stuff, don’t they?).

    We can then begin the interrogation protocols. At that point, of course, some of the shape-shifters may break confinement, but we will have video of their transformations, which will be useful.

    The WISSP program is on schedule, and should soon result in clear identification of actual shape-shifters among us!

    Remember, this memo should be burned after reading. But don’t burn your ipads! The accountants have been complaining about the cost of replacements!

    Fearless Leader

  16. When writing nonfiction, I get paid to write what i know. When writing fiction, I make sh… stuff up.

  17. “Write only what you know.”

    This would explain all those literary novels about middle-aged academics cheating on their wives.

  18. I fear that you have missed the implications of MSJ (Middle School Judgments). You see, in middle school, if a student even READS a book with a character in it of uncertain gender, other students immediately announce that the student is gay.
    The OBVIOUS corollary is that if you WRITE a book about a gay character, you are/become gay. If you write a book about a person of color, you are/become a person of color. If you write a book about crippled rednecks, you are/become a crippled redneck. And so on.
    The logic is impeccable, and springs from the exact same source as the Middle School Judgement: if it is something I do not understand/agree with, it is evil and must be punished.
    I hope this helps.

  19. My usual response when someone tells me I can’t write something, is to tell them to drop dead. And not politely.

    Write what you want.

    But do the research 🙂


  20. My favorite/most interesting character to date is my half Scottish, half Chinese Red Gold dragon named Colin. I really hope I didn’t offend any bi-racial dragons in the way I depicted him.

    1. Speaking as the good friend of a Russian/Irish Red Green colorblind dragon named George (a surprisingly unpopular name among dragons, btw), I’d be happy to get George’s thoughts on your book if you point me toward it.

  21. “Write what you know”, like any piece of good advice can be taken waaaay to far.

    In reference to your comment about how fans calling you dumb can lead to great things it reminds me of an anecdote Larry Niven wrote about Ringworld. After publication a group of physics students did the math and fgiured out that the structure he envisioned would crash into its sun fairly quickly. They actually followed him around at a con chanting “the ringworld is unstable”. This led to him writing “The Ringworld engineers.”

    To Angus,Trim I didn’t know you were a writer. I knew you were a hell of a swordsmith, but I had no idea you had written fiction. What was it called and where could I find it?

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