Anyone who has ever picked up a pen or a laptop and tried to write something has heard that hoary old piece of advice: Write what you know.
When I was starting out, these words of alleged wisdom haunted me, mocked me. It stuck out its green and sickly tongue at me every time I tried to write something. The only thing I knew was that I knew nothing. In many ways, that piece of advice was a hurdle and it took me years to figure out how to climb over it.
What I eventually discovered was this: It doesn’t matter what you know, not at the outset. You can, as Sherlock would advise you, Do your research! Look things up. Visit locales that fit in your story. Read stuff. Ask questions… All of these things help. Knowing, it turns out, doesn’t have to be that hard, especially not in this electronic age. At least, not as far as facts go.
But, and here’s the kicker. While writing what you know isn’t all that, what they should have said is:
WRITE WHAT YOU BELIEVE.
A writer can manage without a lot of things – money, fame, even time – but he or she can never write without belief. Belief in yourself as a writer is fundamental. So, too, is belief in something you can hold dear, be it a deity, family, country or an abstract ideal. Belief in your world view, no matter how maverick those beliefs may be. Hold something to be true and write that.
“June 18: …I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…”
No, I’m not claiming to be another Steinbeck. For good or ill, I’m just me. But I understand exactly what he means. Writing is an endless struggle for honesty. A struggle against mediocrity.
Of course, the very word ‘fiction’ means something untrue. But writers know that fiction has to have a foundation in truth. To put it simply: if the writer doesn’t believe it, you can bet your socks the reader won’t either. It’s not enough to just come up with a plot and manipulate your characters into doing daft things in dubious settings, you have to make it real. (I’m tempted to add a ‘yo’ at the end of that last phrase, but it wouldn’t be me, hence, it wouldn’t be truthful.) The suspension of disbelief is paramount in fiction, and it has to begin with the writer.
That’s not to say belief, in this instance, is limited to simple credulity. There’s a matter of the work saying something that matters, something that reflects the character of the author. We’re talking belief as in honesty, integrity. Belief as it reflects the soul of the author.
There’s a scene in Kenneth Branagh’s film Dead Again where Ken’s character, Mike Church, has a conversation with Cozy Carlisle, played by the late Robin Williams. Cozy figures out that Mike is dying to smoke. Mike says he’s trying to quit. Cozy replies, “Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a nonsmoker, you’ll know.”
The same is true for writing. If you’re a science fiction novelist at heart there’s no point in trying to write romance. If you’re an atheist you probably won’t be convincing if you try to depict a character as a devout church-goer (unless you’re intending that character to seem naive or perhaps hypocritical). Know what you believe. Express it. Defend it.
To slightly modify the words of the great Stephen Sondheim:
“Everything you do let it come from you. Then it will be true.”