Wednesday, April 11, 2007

TM: The Three Big Lies of Writing, part 2


We just got done examining one of writing’s three big lies—the idea that writing is recorded thought. If you disagree, go back and read that post. We’ll wait right here for you. But if you don’t, or you read it already, or you couldn’t care less, let’s move on to Lie Number Two:

Writers should write what they know.

This wet blanket has been hurled at every aspiring writer that comes down the pike. The smart ones shrug it off and soldier on.

Yes. I know. Melville sailed on the Acushnet and gained the experience he needed to write Moby Dick. The 12-year-old Charles Dickens pasted labels on jars of boot-black to support his family while his father was in debtor’s prison, and lived the life that provided the foundation for Oliver Twist and a number of other novels (none of which, by the way, has ever gone out of print … man, I hate that guy.).

Point taken.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, A. A. Milne resided at Crotchfield Farm, not The Hundred Acre Wood, and his life seems noticeably devoid of talking teddy bears and ebullient stuffed tigers. There is no record anywhere of Jules Verne traveling via submarine, yet he ignored this and wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. If writers only wrote what they knew, no child would ever thrill to The Indian in the Cupboard, or The Velveteen Rabbit, because no writer has ever seen a toy brought miraculously to life. Indeed, there would be very little science fiction, no fantasy or speculative fiction, and the literary world would be a drab and narrow place.

I’m thinking right now of an amazing novel that I read back in the ‘Seventies, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Left Hand of Darkness. In it, a trade representative is dispatched from Earth to a planet called Winter, on which the people are essentially without gender, only assuming the male or female characteristics once a year, when they come into season. The protagonist (the earthling) realizes that he has no precedent for dealing with genderless people, so he arbitrarily decides to treat his Winter guide like a male. Then, when they are stranded in a lonely outpost, the guide comes into season and turns out to be … a woman.

Now, I don’t care who you are. You haven’t lived something like that. It is purely a product of the imagination. And although I have not looked at that book for years, I still remember it as brilliant.

If you have a list of writers’ maxims above your desk and “Write what you know” is up there, please, take it down. Now. Tear it up. Burn the scraps.

There. Doesn’t that feel better?

Writer, whether it’s something you know or not, the very next book you need to write is the book that you have been longing to read for years, but have not read because it does not yet exist. Write that book. Make it your mission to fill that hole in the body of literature.

Write what you love.

And tomorrow, we’ll get to the biggest lie of all.

When he's not writing, Tom Morrisey is diving, reading, and riding his Harley . . . but not simultaneously. Check out his books at .


At 12:58 PM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

I like this. I think what I know could make good stories but I'm intrigued by what I don't know or haven't experienced.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I'm a little behind the times, I just watched Star Wars (started with I, II , III, and IV) I've watched them all in a week. V and VI will be this weekend.

Thank God George Lucas stepped out on a limb, eh?


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