I was approached a few weeks ago about doing a radio show in which I’d debate with another author the issue of “writing what you know” vs. “writing outside your experience.” Since I had chosen to write about Cuba, I was assigned the “write outside your experience” side of the argument.
I took the issue to Facebook to see what my FB friends thought about it.
Not surprisingly, since they include science fiction, historical fiction, murdery mystery, and erotica authors, they tended to favour the idea of writing outside their direct experience. Several pointed out that Stephen King isn’t really a serial killer (as far as anyone knows), and that J.K. Rowling may be a Muggle but isn’t a wizard.
Now, as it turns out, that particular radio show isn’t going ahead, or at least not with me on the panel, so the 400 word essay I’d prepared for their website won’t be used after all.
But I confess, it was a useful exercise because I probably started from the “write what you know” side of the equation and ended up shifting positions. The more I think about it, the more I think that writing only from your own experience is limiting, and (dare I say it?) a bit narcissistic. Fiction, after all, is not meant to be autobiography.
Anyway, here’s the short essay I’d prepared. What do you think?
“When I wrote The Beggar’s Opera, I chose to set it in a city I’ve never lived in: Havana. And I did so from the point of view of several male characters as well as a woman. Write what you know? Maybe. But I think you also have to write about what you can imagine.
“If I had to write from my experience alone, the only characters in the book would have been middle-aged white women. And I don’t know any mystery writers who have actually killed anyone, although they certainly think about it a lot.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that when I decided to set the book in Cuba, that I wrote it without any experience at all. It’s a mystery; a police procedural.
“I worked for decades as a criminal defence lawyer and Crown prosecutor, and I was a human rights lawyer for much of my career. I’ve even seen autopsies firsthand. And I’m short, so having a pathologist who needs a stepladder to perform them was easy.
“Plus, what I wrote didn’t have to be true – after all, this is fiction, not a thesis. But it still had to be credible. Authentic. An example of what I mean by “authentic” is David Seidler’s screenplay for The King’s Speech.
“I didn’t realize until Seidler’s acceptance speech at the Oscars that he was a stammerer. It was a condition he developed as a toddler and struggled with for most of his life. Like the main character in his screenplay, King George VI, or “Bertie,” Seidler was forced into some pretty useless therapies, including stuffing his mouth full of marbles.
“As director Tom Hooper explained, that great line in the movie – ‘I have a voice’ –was Seidler railing against his inability to ask a girl out on a date. And the string of F-words that Colin Firth pulled off so brilliantly was the psychological turning point that allowed Seidler to overcome his own speech impediment.
“Of course, David Seidler is not a member of the Royal Family, although he wrote mostly from their perspective. And I’m pretty sure he’s never been a King.
“He had to step outside his experience. He had to imagine what it was like to be a woman and a speech therapist as well as a Royal. He had to invent. But he created a classic that’s authentic. His screenplay captured hearts – and a handful of Oscars – because of it.”