Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Writing What You Know

James Baldwin in his “Autobiographical Notes” said, “One writes out of one thing only - one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

This mantra has been taught over and over to writers - write what you know. While I mostly agree with this, I don’t completely buy into it. Of course, it’s easier to write what you know. The topic is something familiar to you, you know the ins-and-outs, and you can speak with authority. I think this also goes toward your interests. If you want to write science fiction, then you need to read science fiction.

However, I differ from this mantra on this point: if I write fiction, I have the right to write about things that are not part of my personal experience. As a male writer, I have to get into the heads of female characters. I am never going to be a female, and it’s not something I can readily experience, especially the thought processes and emotions. Right now I have a serial killer in my story. I’m not going to kill someone so I can write with more authority. My point is that writing only what you know takes away from the imagination. The imagination is what truly creates art. Without the imagination, we would only have non-fiction stories.

I’m not saying that an artist never uses his or her own experiences. We do in every way that we can. I can’t be a woman, but I may have a female character based on a woman I know. We’ve all seen enough violence on TV and in the movies that we have experienced it enough. Also those emotions I put with the character ultimately come from deep within me. That, I think, is what Baldwin is getting at. We dig at those emotions and give the story everything we can to create a piece of art. To be true art, to have a deeper, lasting effect, we must force from our experiences everything we can give, to give the reader something that is at the same time familiar to them and yet foreign.
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