Your ‘Unique Literary Territory’
There are scores of over-quoted rules relating to the craft of writing. ‘Show, don’t tell.’ ‘Make your verbs work harder’ (which generally just means: avoid relying too much on adverbs). And – my personal bugbear – ‘Only write what what you know.’
This last was iterated with great vehemence by a famous author I recently went to see speaking at an event. She’s ferociously intelligent, and I’ve always admired her writing – even when I haven’t liked it. So it surprised me that she should be advocating this most unimaginative of precepts. It reminded me of a workshop I once attended, when an unexpectedly heated debate arose over the same issue. One writer took it so far that she said you should never write from a perspective you haven’t experienced directly yourself – that it can only ever be intrusion and appropriation.
I disagree, strongly. Of course, if your subject matter, setting and characters happen only to be taken from what you know, that’s fine. Many novels I’ve edited have been thinly veiled memoir (particularly first novels), and brilliantly honest for that. But I certainly don’t think setting limits for your writing is helpful. Why can’t you set your novel in space? Why shouldn’t a young straight man write from the point of view of a gay elderly woman? (Let his readers be the judge of whether he’s done it successfully and sensitively.) I recently read a story in a writing workshop in which the first-person protagonist was deaf, blind and dumb. It was a breathtaking feat of imagination, and the best piece of work that writer has produced so far.
This is a lovely article by Tim Gautreaux, in which he shifts the emphasis in that shackling piece of advice: he urges you not to write what you know but instead to know what you write. Each of us has unique driving interests and preoccupations that will find their way into our story, whether it’s set in space or our own back garden. It’s our own ‘unique literary territory’, and need be limited and contained by nothing.