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.