Show, don’t tell. Kill your darlings. Develop a thick skin.
Most of the standard-issue “rules” of prose were handed out to us, one by one, in our first creative writing classes, and we’ve all heard them thousands of times since—sometimes to the point that they've lost all meaning. So when it comes down to it, which of the rules should you actually follow? (Admittedly, the painful killing of certain darlings is one of my weakest suits. I love my darlings.)
For the September issue of WD, we asked 10 writing pros to riff in support of one of 10 rules, and to riff against another—with an ultimate goal of (hopefully) showing that when it comes to rules and writing, everything is anything but clear-cut. Rather, it’s all about how you adapt a "rule," and make or break it as only you can.
On this WD Mag Wednesday, we bring you the battle of Write What You Know, followed by a regular writing prompt. To read the nine other rules in the feature that includes pieces by Steve Almond, James Scott Bell, John Dufresne and others, check out the September issue of WD.
?Round 1: Donald Maass and Natalie Goldberg
To be sure, this timeless rule can produce bland protagonists, sleepy settings and plots so mild that if you blink you’ll miss them. But in my view, the rule doesn’t mean to record what’s ordinary, but rather to bring out in your story what is personal, passionate and true.
Those of you who are underwater demolition experts or brain surgeons may be feeling smug. Your story already is ahead of the pack, right? Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Exotic subject matter or an exciting milieu do not necessarily make a story gripping. If you’ve ever read a dull biography or an historical novel that’s too research-heavy, then you know what I mean.
“Write what you know” means to write what you see differently, feel profoundly and know is important for the rest of us to get. You don’t need to have lived an extraordinary life or have a unique subject. You need only an original outlook and a fresh purpose for writing.
In fiction, a small-town librarian can be captivating if she, say, classifies her neighbors according to the Dewey Decimal System. In nonfiction, what’s interesting about Alaskan sled dogs? Well, nothing, really—until you capture the beauty and tenderness of the human-animal bond and detail the life-and-death drama of the Iditarod.
The point is, writing what you know means finding what is extraordinary in that which is ordinary and, conversely, discovering what is universal, meaningful and human in that which is uncommon.
Hey, you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.
—Donald Maass is a literary agent whose New York agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the United States and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and The Fire in Fiction. He also is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.
“Write what you know” is a poor adage for a writer. Think about how little we know. We should not limit ourselves. This is why we have imaginations. Clouds, zebras, grilled cheese sandwiches, water, mountains and shoes don’t. Only humans are gifted with imagination. We should exercise our human potential, stretch ourselves beyond our borders.
When you write what you know, you stay in control. One of the first things I encourage my writing students to do is to lose control—say what they want to say, break structure. I often assign them to write about topics like, “what I’m not thinking of,” and “what I don’t remember.” Assignments like these lead to the underbelly, to the dark, rich, hidden life of your wild mind. You may know your neighborhood, but what lurks beyond the familiar, safe streets?
A writer’s job is to give the reader a larger vision of the world. We need to move into the mind of someone in the Congo, Portugal, Brazil, feel into the life of grass and bees, conjure up a horse’s day. All things are speaking. They have different languages; maybe a rock completes the pronunciation of only one syllable every two years. Our job as writers is to listen, to come home to the four corners of the earth.
Be curious: Who is that woman buying five lemons and two peaches at the grocery counter? What does her purse contain? And what does she dream at night?
Only you, the writer, care. Don’t let her disappear out in the parking lot and into oblivion.
—Natalie Goldberg is the author of 11 books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold more than a million and a half copies, Thunder and Lightning, Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Wild Mind. She teaches writing workshops and retreats at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, N.M. View her schedule at nataliegoldberg.com.
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WRITING PROMPT:Between the Lines
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.
Write a conversation in which your character is terrified to say what he really means, and hopes his partner can read between the lines.
Have the last line mean everything.
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