Knowledge vs. Instinct

A saying has been floating around my head a lot lately — “Write what you know.” I wish I could remember who said this or where I first heard it, but the line has become one of those “They Say” aphorisms which lives in my brain.

It’s true, I used to write fanfiction. That was something I knew — someone else’s show, featuring someone else’s characters with a little bit of my desires for them mixed in. But what about things I don’t know that I’m still interested in? If writers only write what they know, where does science fiction come from? Or most other narratives, for that matter?

I’ve been rereading a book called In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today by Aleks Sierz. It’s not really about British drama today, but about British drama in the 90’s, which featured a resurgence of sex and violence on stage, often compared to the first wave of drama in the 1950’s which took advantage of relaxed censorship laws. This means many playwrights were writing about things they knew: urban disaffection, suburban ennui, domestic violence, sexual problems, gender divide, drug addiction. But many writers were also writing about things they didn’t know: extreme drug addiction, drug trafficking, prostitution and stripping, war, gang violence. Things we only hear about, that we only know through other people’s stories. Many of these new 90’s British plays featured incredible trips into characters’ minds, and these trips often featured such awful, disturbing torture and sexual abuse that audiences frequently left in disgust, or protested the content on the streets. The events in many of these plays were events that never happened to the playwrights — the images just poured forth from their imaginations, as reactions to global events or subconscious disturbances.

I’ve decided that “Write what you know” is a terrible piece of advice. This is not to say that writers shouldn’t educate themselves if they’re writing about historical events (I’m looking at you, Sofia Coppola), or very specific subjects like astronomy or Poland or capitalist economics. But imagination is just as important for narratives. To borrow Anthony Neilson’s quote in In-Yer-Face Theatre:

Tell a story, and the themes will take care of themselves. The story is the route by which your subconscious finds expression in the real world. Preoccupying yourself with the mechanics of a narrative frees you from your ego and allows something more truthful to come through.

At the same time, I don’t support ignorance. I take a populist view of narrative — write what inspires you — but some study or knowledge should underlie that, right? Imagination creates the story and characters and dialogue, but the world comes from knowledge, I would think.

So what’s the balance?

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