Write what you know—this advice floats around all writing circles. My first brush with it was way back at university, when I was floundering through a creative writing seminar. Write about what you’ve seen, heard, touched, tasted, and experienced. What you know is certain. What you know allows you to plough from start to end, from one end of the word count to another. This is what I was told.
This is bullshit.
When it comes down to it, writing about what you know is like having to cross a furniture-laden room just after the lights have been switched off and your eyes are yet to acclimatise to the fresh absence of light. Just a couple of milliseconds ago you knew how far it was to the couch, two steps, maybe three, but in the dark—“Ouch!”—you stub your toe and the coffee table is closer than you thought—Fuck!” There goes your left shin.
CRASH!—was that the vase?
And—“Sweet Lord Jesus!”—what just brushed against your knees?
Even though you thought you knew this room well everything is suddenly foreign. The walls aren’t where you thought they’d be. The chairs have moved. The shapes, textures, and sizes of things have morphed in the dark. But if you know the general direction of the door and angle towards it, bit by bit, you’ll make your way to it with some more bumps and scrapes.
That’s what a lot of writing is like for me: stumbling around in a dark in a room I thought I knew, feeling my way forward. Generally, I know where the end is, and I know where some route markers are. But the space between is where shit happens, whether I want it to or not.
Yet others say you should write about what you don’t know which just pushes any writer to what they do know so they can make some sort of start, which then becomes writing about what they don’t know by navigating in the dark to what they do know—you see where I’m going with this?
Everything, eventually, comes back to the same place. All that matters is whether the damn story gets written or not.
Essentially, I have the same ingredients as other writers have when they decide to bake a cake:
– imitation (what I’ve read in books, heard in a song, or seen in films),
– observation (research, or what I’ve seen to be true in the world),
– experience (what I’ve personally waded through),
– intuition (what I think or feel to be true),
– language (the breadth and depth of my vocabulary in any serviceable language),
– space (where the heck I find myself emotionally and physically when I write),
– and, time (that abundant and scarce commodity).
Putting these things together gets me a story. All writers do this; they bake cakes using the same ingredients. They might tweak the recipe here and there, varying the quantities of their ingredients, favouring imitation over observation, or experience over intuition, but, essentially, they wind up making a cake.
When I was writing Crunchy, Green Apples (or, Omo) I remember thinking I was safe because I was writing about what I knew: being raised in a working class life, about looking forward to Friday afternoon tea with rare Romany Creams, and having to eat brown bread when the family budget wasn’t balancing properly. At the time I thought it would be easy. After all, I’m the product of such an upbringing, intimately familiar with the average working class grocery list, from Topscore maize meal to last-minute purchase Zam-Buk. I felt confident in leading the character through a short story.
Observation, experience, language, space, and time—check.
I put the grocery list down on paper and sat down to write.
Then the lights went off for a year!
After multiple rejections and revisions, I received the most pleasant email from The Amistad, Howard University’s literary magazine two weeks ago, telling me Crunchy, Green Apples had been selected as part of their spring issue. What I assumed to have been a simple story back when I’d started penning it had grown into something more complex, still true to my original intention but richer, more bruised—a story with a story to tell. I’d started with what I knew, gotten lost in what I didn’t know and, thankfully, managed to get the damn story written.
I guess that sums up my thoughts on the whole write-what-you-know debate for now. It doesn’t matter where you start or how you start, just that you do start and bake the cake.
Even better, toss the flour and bake with cocaine. It’s what all the kick-ass writers in the world do.