The Great Canards of Creative Writing

Write What You Know

Having read reams of slush pile fiction, I have waded into numerous manuscripts that give the lie to the principle of Write What You Know. Frankly, it leads to a lot of writing about mundane daily routines, what might be called the workplace novel, or perhaps, even, the house spouse novel, that could not be more atrocious as fiction.

They are all pretty much the same. They begin with waking up in the morning and getting breakfast together, dealing with the spouse and the kids, arriving at work and greeting ones’ office suite mates, or greeting one’s patients in a dentist’s office. If one doesn’t have a story to tell, or something to say that would interest others, then what is the point of writing? Such manuscripts will be round filed by the middle of sentence one.

I once sat through a reading by a woman of the first chapter of her “workplace novel.” It consisted entirely of sentences such as this:

“Mabel was our first customer. As she came in with Fifi, her poodle, we said, “Hi Mabel, It’s been awhile, how are you and Fifi today.” Mabel said, I’m alright, but Fifi’s got a touch of the mange.” Then Mr. Drake came in with his Macaw. The Macaw said, “good morning,” and we all thought it was so amazing that Mr. Drake’s Macaw knew exactly what to say. And we all said good morning to Mr. Drake and his Macaw.” A few minutes later, Saundra French came in with her Manx cat…” This drivel went on for at least ten minutes, but you pretty much got the picture by the end of line one.

A much better idea is to write what you can imagine, using knowledge of matters that interest you to enliven and inform your fiction, and research what you need to know to make it believable to others. Unless there is some particular drama occurring in the home or the workplace that is universally interesting and pertinent to a story line, it is best to refrain from writing about the events of ones day. Follow the principle that every word you write should be germane to the story, the theme, or the character development and you will avoid this common mistake.

Correction: Know What You Write. Don’t Write What You Know.

Express Yourself

Another principle that needs discarding is that art, in general, and writing in particular, is self-expression. I prefer to think of creativity as a process of self-abstraction. It is all about making decisions, of choosing what it best for the work. Looking at the etymology, what do these words tell us? To abstract is to draw away, implying a process of reaching within and plucking out the gems, or so one would hope. To express oneself is to press out, and what is it that we tend to press out? I rest my case.

Correction: Abstract Yourself, Don’t Express Yourself.

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