Sunday, May 29, 2011

What to Write?

What writer hasn't stared at a blank page, wondering what to write?  The experience is so pervasive it has become a cliche.  It is a cliche to open an article like this with that question.  But cliche or not, a writer identifies with the problem.  It is hateful to want to write, and to have nothing to write.

The real trouble is this:  there is little desire to write about the things that are common to your own experience, because you are very familiar with them, and therefore they are somewhat boring to you.  It would be much more interesting to write about exotic things such a war, space, sex, far away places, intrigue, crime, mystery and so on ... but chances are you have little hands-on experience with those things.  If you were to write about skiing, for instance, while never having skied, you will look like an idiot.

In fact, Hemingway was confronted by a friend of his who had written a story about skiing, and Hemingway was appalled by the inaccuracies.  "Write what you know!" Hemingway told him ... and it is, sadly, good advice.

The answer is to know a lot more about things you wish to write about, which has started a fad in these last few decades about people winging off to other lands, or putting themselves through grueling lifestyles, just so they have something interesting to write about.  This practice has long been held in good stead, going back through the centuries to men who climbed aboard ships to visit India, Africa or South America in search of adventure and a great novel.  And while many accounts of these places were written, two things must be pointed out.  One, that many people died.  And two, the novels that got written are by no account considered very special.

Recently the publishing industry, however, is caught up with this fad, so that they'd rather publish an actual account of a young girl escaping a hellish prison camp than a fictional one.  They would rather print the account of someone forcing themselves to feast exclusively on an insect diet than a similar fictional story.  The real has developed its own cachet.

But I will remind the gentle reader that Shakespeare did not travel, or feed himself on a diet of bugs.  Where it comes to writing what you know, the good writer should remember that the one primary thing you wish to know is how to write.  While those humdrum things around you may seem dull and uninteresting, consider that in the hands of a hardworking craftsman, the description of that life can carry with it all the exotic elements of a far-off planet.  Particularly when those characteristics are combined with the elements of a far-off planet.  Edgar Rice Burroughs obviously never travelled to Mars.

The whole panoply of life is open to representation ... not just the exotic bits.  If you find yourself faced with a blank page, put it down and go live your life.  And then come home and write interestingly about what you've done that day, what you'd like to do tomorrow and what you would do if all the forces of God were at your fingertips.

Do not try to write anything until you have something to write.  I assure you, when you're ready, you'll do in one sitting what a dozen failed attempts could not accomplish.

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