Don’t Write What You Know Until You Know Something.

Not long after college, I had the good fortune to have lunch with Howard Fast (SpartacusCitizen Tom Paine). A mutual friend had arranged the lunch, knowing that I wanted to be a writer.  The great master listened politely as I told him I was writing a play about the Stasi infiltration of a group of East German poets. He asked me a little about my upbringing, my parents, my hometown, and told me that I should write about that. It would be more authentic, and more heartfelt.

Andrew-Case-author-writer The-Big-Fear-Book-cover

Column by Andrew Case, author of THE BIG FEAR (April 2016,
Thomas and Mercer). Publishers Weekly called his novel a
“standout among Serpico-type crime thrillers” in a starred review.
Andrew is an award-winning playwright and a critically-acclaimed
novelist. His plays have been commissioned or produced by
Manhattan Theatre Club, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago,
New Theatre in Miami, InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia, and
many more across the country. Follow him on Twitter

It may be the most common piece of advice given to young writers: write what you know, because only you can tell that story. The slogan has become accepted wisdom and a truism. But like most truisms, it is not only wrong but dangerous. I can assure you that had I taken Fast’s advice and written the coming-of-age novel of the middle-class product of a stable marriage in Phoenix, I never would have had a writing career. And come to think of it, Fast himself had no firsthand experience of either the Third Servile War or the American Revolution.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

One of the mantras of Howard Korder’s extraordinary meditation on writing and commerce, SEARCH AND DESTROY, is “Just Because It Happened To You Doesn’t Make It Interesting.” I always think of this line when I am cutting unnecessary fat from a manuscript. It serves as the truthful counterweight to that first nugget of writerly advice. If all you know is what you’ve read in the books you like, the layout of your college campus, and a spattering of romantic angst, then please, please, please, do not write what you know.

What you ought to do instead is learn something. I spent the first part of my career as an aspiring playwright working in the literary office of an Off-Broadway theatre, reading and evaluating scripts. Pretty soon, I couldn’t write about anything other than theatre. Nowadays, I cringe even thinking about the play I wrote that was set in a theatre. I didn’t know anything. So I left the job and looked for something else, without limiting my search to what I thought I was qualified for. I ended up getting hired by the City of New York to investigate complaints of misconduct against NYPD officers.

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From the time I started investigating dirty cops, everything I wrote was influenced by my work. I didn’t write a book or a play about the police for another decade, but the stories I heard from complainants made it into my plays in other ways. I learned how to construct an argument and how to conduct an investigation—and most of my plays were, in one way or another, arguments or investigations. These early plays were metaphorically, if not concretely, based on my work. They were autobiographical in the way Thomas Wolfe meant it when he wrote that “a more autobiographical work than GULLIVER’S TRAVELS cannot easily be imagined.”

But when, after I had investigated police misconduct for a decade, I decided to write a crime novel set directly in that world, I realized how important my firsthand experience was. I knew what happens at a meeting of the Firearms Discharge Control Board; I knew the protocol for using pepper spray and how exactly a cop could kill someone if he broke that protocol; I knew the unwritten rules when you visit a precinct unannounced.

I worked hard on writing and revising the book, and learned a ton along the way about tone, diction, voice, and pacing. But each draft was grounded in my experience investigating police misconduct. And when it came time to write query letters, I was able to tell agents that I wasn’t  a newcomer to writing about police abuse: I had subpoenaed the NYPD, I had read autopsies, and I had sat across a table demanding that an officer explain exactly why he had hit that kid with his nightstick.

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)

So don’t worry about whether you write what you know. Worry about whether you know anything. Go out in the world and experience it. Get a job that you never thought you’d take. Reed Farrel Coleman learned the contours of Long Island by delivering heating oil; Paul Auster detailed dozens of breakneck jobs in HAND TO MOUTH. Work is experience, and experience, if you embrace it, will always serve your writing.

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