Bones of Contention: an occasional series

(1) Write about what you know

I’ve long thought of writing a series of pieces for the newsletter on contentious issues in writing. So I’ll begin with the above. For me, the problem here is the suggestion that we should confine ourselves to writing about what we’ve actually experienced. But surely much of what we “know” comes to us through our imagination. If we were to confine ourselves to the former there would be no historical fiction, no fantasy and a huge reduction in crime fiction. The loss of the first might suit some, but would be unfair to the likes of Hilary Mantel, Marguerite Yourcenar, Guiseppe de Lampedusa, while the lopping of crime fiction, which might bring some benefits, could rob us of fine novels by P.D. James, Raymond Chandler and Dostoevsky. I’ve no idea what these writers “knew”, but I’m willing to bet that many crime novelists have never so much as seen a corpse, much less committed or investigated a murder.

Shakespeare, a jobbing actor-dramatist from Stratford, wrote about war, kingship, a struggle in fairyland. Emily Brontë, stranded in a remote vicarage with a doll for a boyfriend, wrote about immortal love and ghosts that “walk” the Yorkshire moors. Franz Kafka, an obscure insurance clerk, wrote about the horror of waking to find yourself transformed into a giant insect. Of course, you might say that they still wrote from personal experience; they simply projected that experience through figments of their imagination. But wouldn’t they have found the injunction to write about what they knew – with the implication “had experienced at first hand” – rather inhibiting? Thank God there was no one around to counsel them in their day.

Nevertheless I see where the advice comes from: some writing strays too far. The problem comes when imagination fails to match experience; when writers lie about characters or bungle what they don’t understand; when readers find themselves saying “But she wouldn’t do that!” or perhaps “Beautifully written, but I don’t believe a word of it.” How does Oliver, raised in a den of thieves, retain his sweet innocence? How indeed does James’s Maisie, surrounded by corrupt adults? Is it likely that the otherwise flawlessly embodied Becky Sharp would murder Jos Sedley for his money? In my view, then, we should not be urged to write about what we know, but rather about what our imaginations can encompass.

If you have any thoughts on this, please share them. Next time: Show Don’t Tell.

17. May 2019
Les Brookes