Friday, 13 January 2012


Happy Friday! Gosh, what a week it's been - I'm really glad to see the finish line in sight, let me tell you. Before I launch you into RetroFriday, I want to share this link for the 2012 Leeds Book Awards website. I'm up there, along with the other shortlisted titles and authors, and anyone who wants can write a review, although you need to be attending school in the Leeds area to actually vote.

And now it's time to dust off an antique post from days of yore (well, only 2010, actually), which sprang to mind this week because of the interesting discussion about empathy in the comments of Wednesday's post. Enjoy!


Okay, I know you've all heard that one before.

I guess how you react to it will depend on who you are. If you sailed single-handedly around the world at age fourteen, or volunteered to go abroad and build orphanages for the under-privileged in Borneo at fifteen, or climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when you were sixteen, then chances are you're making a smug face right now.

But if you're like me, a fairly normal person who's had a few interesting experiences but has generally lived an average sort of life, you're feeling a leeettle annoyed that someone's brought that old chestnut up again. And you kind of hate the adventurous people making disgusting smug faces (don't worry, so do I. Just a bit). But hang on just a minute there, Smuggy McSmuggerson! Read on, and you might find that you need to think again before writing your epic story about the smug single-handled sailing/orphanage-building/mountain-climbing kid from Ohio!

I'm going to let you in on a secret. Write what you know is the most widely misinterpreted piece of writing advice EVER. It does not mean what most of the people repeating it think it means. And that includes your teacher, your mum, and most probably that guy on the writing forum who laughed at your story about vampire unicorns. Trust me.

How do I know? Well, look at me, kids. Do I seem like a girl whose three brothers were turned into swans and who swore an oath of silence while weaving nettle shirts in order to save them? Do I seem like the kind of person who can take on three murderous mercenaries simultaneously and whip them into a souffle without breaking a sweat? I only have one brother, and he works in a doctor's office in Sheffield, quite happily, without any untoward avian illnesses. And if I tried to pick up a sword and defend my one true love with it, I'm fairly sure I would disembowel myself.

But did I write from the point of view of people who were going through those experiences - and I got published anyway. So did I break the Write what you know rule? No, actually. Because the true meaning of this saying isn't that if you're a fifty year old dentist in Scunthorpe you're only allowed to write about other middle-aged Scunthorpian dental-technicians. It means that what your character feels, you, the writer, MUST FEEL TOO.

It doesn't matter if you're writing about three headed Smargle-Lizards from the far off planet of Squink. It doesn't matter if you're writing about a child soldier fighting for her life in Uganda. It doesn't matter if you're writing about a young person very much like yourself, going through the same things in life you are right now. What makes the reader care about your story is not their (or your!) similarity to the characters. It's that they can identify with your character's emotions.

Readers want to be touched in their hearts. If the Smargle-Lizard is weeping over the grave of her dead mother, your reader wants to feel her pain, understand her grief. If you can achieve that, they won't care about her three heads anymore. All they'll want to know is if she's going to be all right. But if they can't feel the character's emotions and understand why she feels the way she does, they won't care if the character is exactly the same as them. The story simply won't matter to them. They'll close the book and move on.

It's not easy - in fact, it's the hardest thing a writer ever has to do. But we all have grief inside us, sadness, worry, as well as laughter, love and joy. When you put a character through an ordeal, you have to be willing to reach down into the deepest and darkest bits of your own soul and pull those emotions out. You have to live them along with your character.

If you can do that - if you find yourself laughing at your character's jokes, crying when she does, feeling joy when she does, then the reader will too. At that point you will have fulfilled the command to Write what you know in the best and the only way that really matters. Like the saying goes, if there are no tears in the author, there will be none in the reader either.

Write what you know means write from the heart. It means be brave enough to let yourself grieve and laugh and fall in love, for the world to see, right there on the page, even if you're doing it inside the character of a three-headed Squinkian Smargle-Lizard. It means, be true to yourself and your characters.

Do that? And you'll be a writer.


Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Great post. This makes me feel a lot better, I have so many ideas that I've relegated to a 12th of Never pile because I don't have first hand experience. Maybe it's time I had another look at that pile.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Definitely! Go dig some out right now!

Emma Pass said...

Yes, yes, yes. I used to get SO depressed at the thought of only being "allowed" to write about what I knew. Then I read Stephen King's ON WRITING, and the bit where he says something similar to you – that that phrase means write what your heart knows, and apply it to any situation you want!

I felt a lot better after that. :)

Isabel said...

Yes!! This is one of the things that frustrates me the MOST, and you explain it so well in this post! For example, earlier this year in English class, we each had to write a short story of 1000 words, and this saying was brought up by my teacher. She was explaining why we weren't allowed to write about anything really gory -- such as death -- in our stories. She said that something like having a close family member die is a very sensitive topic that some people have actually experienced, and that in the past she has read stories where this is not described in a realistic way and could actually be taken as offensive. Most people our age wouldn't have the maturity to write about something like that in a proper way, is what she was explaining, and I actually really agreed with her in that situation. It's about the writer being able to relate to the character's emotions, and having them come straight from their heart.

P.S. Today was pajama day and movie night at Winsor (my school), and we watched Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon. I loved both of them, especially Tangled!! The interpretation of Rapunzel is so interesting and well thought out, and pretty mature for a children's movie! (I only got to watch some parts of it while I was in Brazil and my little cousins had it on.)

Burgandy Ice said...

*sigh* LOVE it!! I'm marking your post to return and think about... some of the scariest stuff is letting the tears and laughter fly in writing. Freaks me out, anyway. Thanks for sharing!!!!

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: Well, no wonder really! On a writing board I once came across a very nice lady (a distinguished, published author) who was *convinced* that her books would naturally be better than the work of anyone younger than her because she had more experience of life. I remember telling her that I thought while experience might provide inspiration, it was talent and hard work that actually made a good writer, but she wouldn't hear it. Later, I wished I'd asked her if she thought her current books were better than, say, Dickens or Shakespeare's earlier works! She'd have had a hard time answering that.

Isabel: Well, your teacher might have a point - I mean, I know that when I do writing exercises in schools there's always a couple of kids (usually boys, which says something about our society) who write the grossest stuff they can imagine. And that's fine, so long as there's no one in the class who might actually be hurt by that - the problem being, you won't know until it's too late. On the other hand, sometimes you need to write about things that you have no experience of as a way to understand them. I wrote a lot of poetry about death when I was young. It is a matter of sensitivity, I think, and having empathy for the reader rather than trying to shock deliberately.

I'm glad that you liked Tangled and HTTYD as much as I did :)

Burgundy: You're very welcome!

Isabel said...

Zoe: I agree with what you're saying, and I think that writing about it isn't something that should be completely banned, but I think you need to have a certain amount of maturity and thoughtfulness to do that, and sometimes kids - like you said - don't always have that. But obviously I think that you need to take risks, as well, if you're going to be a writer. I don't have a problem with reading about stuff like that in books, as long is it is described in a realistic way and I can empathize with the character.

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