Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rule One: Write what you know. What if you don't know anything?

But Rosie you're all right -- you wear my ring
When you hold me tight -- Rosie that's my thing
When you turn out the light -- I've got to hand it to me

One of the oldest rules in the book, is to write what you know. That sounds good, but how many tomes on the fine art of masturbation do people really need? Thank you very much. I'll be at the Sands on the 8th, and I'm doing a special 4th of July show in Atlantic City...

But seriously folks, writing without meaning is just so much mental masturbation. It might feel good to you, but it's not doing anything for anyone else. Too many really good writers lose contact with the world around them, and their books become new ways to stroke themselves and their egos. Writing what you know is a multi-layer commandment. It means (as Agent 007 tried to make clear in her last post) knowing how human beings behave; what they think, feel, say, and do - in a variety of circumstances. It means knowing that not all good stories end with happily ever after, but some do, and not being afraid to let your story end the way it ends, even when you know your readers are going to howl.

On another level, writing what you know is pretty limiting, especially if you don't know anything. I strongly believe that a writer's education should be an education in life, not just an education in writing, and I believe you need to keep learning - about life and about writing - even after you become a successful writer.

If you're wondering where I'm coming from, let me tell you. I've noticed a trend among writers. The longer they write, the more likely it is their main characters will be writers. Stephen King has all but given up on non-writer protagonists (although his next book, Lisey's Story, a literary novel with blurbs from Michael Chabon and Pat Conroy, centers around a writer's widow). Cell's lead character is celebrating the sale of his graphic novel when the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Bag of Bones was written in first person, and told through the eyes of a respectable mid-list author. Even the final three books of the Dark Tower series centered to some degree around a writer - King himself.

King isn't alone. Ian McEwan chose a writer as his main POV character in Atonement. Margaret Atwood did the same for Blind Assassin. Peter Carey used two poets and the publisher of a literary magazine for his odd tale, My Life as a Fake. John Irving relegated his author to second fiddle in Until I Find You, but he had four, count them, four different novelists sharing the stage in A Widow for One Year. Irving's book also has agents, publishers, book shows, readings, fans, fanatics, and prostitutes - Irving really knows the book business. I wonder, after years as a writer, does he know anything else?

You'll notice that I didn't include writers whose work is based on the same or similar characters being in each of their works- either in a series, like Tom Clancy, John D. McDonald, or even my old pal J.A. Konrath - or authors whose characters' professions are defined by their genre - John Grisham or Robin Cook. They make their living in a tight field with its own rules - rules that don't allow a CIA director, private eye, cop, lawyer, or doctor to become a writer in book five, although the genres each have their own traps for authors. I'm talking about writers who make their living writing unique stories. Some of these writers are well respected in the literary community (I aplogize for the oxymoron: literary community. As if.)

I think Irving, Atwood, McEwan, King, and hundreds of other writers could take a lesson from Shaquille O'neal - when they're through playing games, they should get a real job.

Shaq is a reserve police officer, and plans to make law enforcement his second career. Most former sports superstars (despite having enough money to never need to work again) take the easy way out, and find a career similar to their first - broadcasting or coaching - and avoid ever having to learn anything new. I'm afraid literature's superstars are doing the same thing. A year as writer-in-residence might be a great job, but it isn't going to expand a great writer's horizons much.

In all fairness to the writers above, I'm sure they know a great deal about the world. From a Buick 8 (King) focused on state police, Oryx and Crake (Atwood) on genetic engineers, The True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey) was about Australia's national hero (who was hanged as a horse theif) and Until I Find You (Irving) had more to do with tattoo artists and organ players than with writers (Irving is also in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame). I used them to highlight a problem that seems common among writers at every talent level.

I spend enough time gazing into my own navel, and enough time reading about writers in order to enhance my career, that when I read a novel I don't want to see the world the author has created for me through the eyes of a writer. Give me a plumber, or a pediatrician, or even some poor wanker who's addicted to internet porn. I don't care if the character is jerking off, as long as the writer isn't. If you don't know anything other than writing, you need to further your education. Turn off your computer, and pick up a broom, or a baton, or a hockey stick - anything that will give you a new perspective on the world to bring to your writing.

Speaking of jerking off, how many of you recognized my epigraph as the chorus to Jackson Browne's masterpiece and ode to masturbation, Rosie (co-written with Donald Miller and Glen Frey). Don't ask me why this essay is so wrapped up in the language of self-love. I don't know. I once heard Hawkeye Pierce (M.A.S.H.) say, "The lack of occupation with sex, leads to a pre-occupation with sex." Perhaps he was right. Either way,

Looks like it's me and you again tonight Rosie

Mark Pettus,
Sunday, May 07, 2006


16 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger S. W. Vaughn, Anonymous Andy, Anonymous Razib Ahmed, Blogger Bernita, Blogger Rene, Blogger Amie Stuart, Blogger Moni, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Beth Ciotta, Anonymous Kira, Blogger Dennie McDonald, Blogger anne frasier, Blogger Phoenix, Blogger Frank Baron, Blogger Rural Writer, Anonymous Anonymous,


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16 Comments

at 11:35 PM Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Oh, Mark...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I couldn't agree more. Write what you know is such a death trap -- because the more you write, the more you know about writing.

This is also responsible for the proliferation of writers who write books helping other writers learn how to write. When they run out of novel ideas, they write about writing...

I vowed early on never to write a book in which a single solitary character is a writer. And I will stick to that vow -- even if it means I have to go back to working at McDonalds and write a novel about a fast food worker serial killer.

 
at 5:54 AM Anonymous Andy said...

Maybe the masturbatory thread which weaves in and out (ahem) of this fine post containing some very sage advice is telling you something? I won't speculate as to what. It's either get down there and do, or stop doing because your hand will fall off. Only you can tell! :-)

I've never been interested in writing a prose piece about a writer, nor have I ever involved writers in my stories. That said, poetry is different - because it often, though not always, involves personal experience being relayed, I guess you could say poetry, being from the poet's perspective, is also the writer's perspective. But then, it's rarely said so directly, though you do get poems about poetry which are sometimes good, sometimes not. x

 
at 7:52 AM Anonymous Razib Ahmed said...

" I strongly believe that a writer's education should be an education in life, not just an education in writing, and I believe you need to keep learning - about life and about writing - even after you become a successful writer."
I could not agree with you more. I think that if you want to be a good writer you must have a voice of your own and for that you must write what you know. Yes, 'education in life' is far more important for a writer than 'education in writing'. Thanks for your excellent post and thanks a lot for visiting my blog.

 
at 8:52 AM Blogger Bernita said...

Right on, Mark.
Absolutely.

 
at 10:13 AM Blogger Rene said...

Boy, this is a topic I've struggled with. My careers have been limited as has my experience in the world, so I always feel out of my element when I write. Which is probably why I write paranormal. My education is in history so I like to write historicals in a specific time period because that is where my knowledge lies.

 
at 10:57 AM Blogger Amie Stuart said...

I'll admit I've written two writers (both men), but I'm also very conscious of it and probably won't do it again. In my defense one man was a male erotica writer trying to, er, break out =P

OTOH there is such a wealth of information out there, there's almost no excuse for it--I spent yesterday researching amusement parks, how to build a roller coaster and women in blue collar jobs. *ggg*

 
at 6:50 PM Blogger Moni said...

**snaps fingers**...ooops that's poetry isn't it? Absolutely brilliant! Talk about life experiences being the best source of inspiration and information for a book; I don't believe Hemingway could have said it better. His alchohol fueled gritty life experiences served to help created masterpieces. Speaking of masterbating, I agree one shouldn't mentally masterbate in attempts to create a masterpiece. Ha!

Now you've got me talking about the self pleasure. Geeesh!

 
at 7:17 PM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

Well put, Mark, about the learning more to write about...thing. ;D Since my book revolves around drug trafficking and criminals, I had to do lots of research. Really, I'm not a criminal. hehe.

 
at 10:33 PM Blogger Beth Ciotta said...

Excellent post. Inspiring. Thanks so much!

 
at 2:27 PM Anonymous Kira said...

Great thoughts, Mark. Writing is to some degree opening a door into the writer's mind, but it should be a door we haven't seen already. That said, I hope I don't bore readers with an optician main char LOL!

 
at 2:41 PM Blogger Dennie McDonald said...

I am a stay-at-home-mom. The absolute LAST thing I want to write about is anything kid related...

 
at 11:17 AM Blogger anne frasier said...

and don't even start about musicians who wind up writing songs about lonely motel rooms and what's on television.


(LOL to Dennie.)

 
at 11:49 AM Blogger Phoenix said...

Hey, just popping by via Naomi's blog.

You had some very good thoughts... I do want to point out though, in Clancy's books, Jack Ryan is actually a writer. He comments in Hunt for Red October that he writes books for the CIA. Now obviously this isn't a focus of his life in any of the books because I don't recall it being mentioned more than one other time, if that.

Have a great day all, thanks for the entry.

 
at 1:46 PM Blogger Frank Baron said...

Fine post Mark but I'm going to plop my devil's advocate hat on for a sec.

The vast majority of readers aren't writers themselves so to them, a writer's perspective is as exotic as a plumber's to us.

The perspective from the front that is....

 
at 7:47 AM Blogger Rural Writer said...

Well said.

 
at 1:54 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful, wise commentary this. The life experience of even the simplest among us towers over anything that can ever be written. Yet many writers, knowing this, find it difficult to engage with real people and live fully. Why?

 

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