As a beginner writer a gazillion years ago navigating Writing 101, one of the first rules I learned from a group of heavyweight author-teachers was WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. Yes but…what about dragons and mermaids? Henry VIII? That talking T-Rex who only eats broccoli and has a crush on a hen called Henny Jenn? (There is such a hen, BTW, named after yours truly.) I had stories to tell, but they all lived in a part of me that could only imagine them, in far-flung settings I’d only ever get to visit in my head. On a scale of Interesting, my life was about a 3, and Experience, um…maybe a 2, Imagination…now Imagination…125 to the power of 10.
It was pointed out to me, rather sternly, that I was a girl, so couldn’t know what it meant to be a boy. A middle-class white South African, I didn’t have the skill, or the right, to presume what it felt like to be anything but meh me. I went to school and came home. I fed oatmeal to the dog when my mother wasn’t watching. My awesome father used his bare hands to pull pigeons who fell down the chimney out of the fireplace before they got burned. Okay, so maybe I did have some things to write about. The more I rummaged through my seemingly empty suitcase of experiences, the more I discovered there actually were things I knew a little something about: injustice, for example, cruelty, love, fear, joy, emotions that were real to me and probably shared by every other creature that ever walked the earth. Looking back, my emotional life was a good place to start.
As an undergraduate, I chose to study Anthropology because I was curious about what it might be like to be somebody else. Anthropology’s principles of observation and tolerance appealed to me, and it confirmed how essential it is to understand something from the inside out, without imposing my own judgments, standards and values which exist in an entirely different context. I learned that there are spaces where cultures converge and those where they remain separate; that somehow, in spite of our differences, we’re all interconnected, impacting and influencing one another, while at the same time preserving aspects that are distinctive.
Anthropologists optimally gain their knowledge by living with and experiencing the cultures they study. While that level of immersion isn’t always possible and is probably beyond the reach of many, we at least have access to this kind of in-depth research in articles, books and other forms of media.
The parallels became obvious to me as I expanded my own research and evolved as a writer. If I could learn to write from the inside out, fiction would allow me to be anyone, go anywhere, and experience anything. I could invent worlds, as long as I could live in them and they in me. What I lacked in experiential knowledge, I could augment with research, and if stories unfolded in my mind, well, I knew only too well how to live in my head. The possibilities were dazzling in breadth and scope.
While all this makes sense in theory, here are some tips to put it into practice:
- Travel. See the world, or those parts of it that draw you for some reason. Curiosity is a good one. What’s it like to sleep under the stars in Machu Picchu? How does your skin feel after floating in the Dead Sea? Do people really eat mopane worms in Africa? (Yes, they do, and you’ll find recipes for them on the internet.) Suspend your disbelief and go on an adventure, making notes every step of the way.
- Research. Not all of us can lock up the house and jet off. Someone has to feed the dog, take the kids to school, go to work. Various other constraints may confine us to a library, say, a budget. Maybe you’d be flying into a war zone. Maybe you’re interested in history, and although fiction has accommodated all manner of time travel, it’s not yet a realistic option. If you’re Elon Musk or Richard Branson, you can fly your own rocket to another planet if you want to write about the Galaxy, but for the rest of us, watch a documentary, read loads of books and journals, listen to interviews and consult experts.
- Meditate/Dream/Imagine. Science fiction and fantasy writers are masters at this. The good ones construct worlds far beyond the limits of reality, yet because they immerse themselves in their settings and stories, readers are willing to go anywhere with them. All that’s needed is a rich, vivid interior world, and the practical discipline to frame that creation with language.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW remains the best piece of writing advice I ever got. It no longer represents a constraint, but over the years has become a liberating concept that accommodates the novel’s infinite potential. It gave me the courage to set my thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing in a fictitious South American country. GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS is a gothic mystery, and my protagonist is a Latino…male…doctor…!
Next up tomorrow from Robin with ‘B’: Boys and Books.