Posted by: daveed | January 16, 2009

In praise of know-nothings

Cartoonist Austin Kleon offered up this awesome trope-slayer that puts paid to the “write what you know” advice given to all writers at some point in their careers. He channels novelist John Gardner to say that it’s bullshit; from Gardner’s The Art of Fiction:

A common and usually unfortunate answer is “Write about what you know.” Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche’s censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one’s own home town, one’s Episcopalian mother, one’s crippled younger sister. For some writers, the advice may work, but when it does, it usually works by a curious accident: The writer writes well about what he knows because he has read primarily fiction of this kind—realistic fiction of the sort we associate with The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, or Harper’s.

The writer, in other words, is presenting not so much what he knows about life as what he knows about a particular literary genre. A better answer, though still not an ideal one, might have been “Write the kind of story you know and like best—a ghost story, a science-fiction piece, a realistic story about your childhood, or whatever.”

Amen. I especially like his take on the kind of solipsistic prose masturbation you find these days. But what a liberating premise, no longer having to second guess my intense desire to write what I find engaging and inspiring. I couldn’t care less about writing to expiate the sins of my childhood, or vindicate a moment of unrequited adolescent love. Forget about writing where I grew up—fucking hated nearly everything about the place.

So instead I enjoy creating stories around experiences I’ve never had, to imagine scenarios, characters and relationships that might draw inspiration from the real world, but are shaped and crafted to my liking. Kleon says to write the book you want to read. I choose to write films I want to see…


  1. […] written about his second point before, and I’m taking #4 to heart by making my screenwriting more hands-on meaningful by […]

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