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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Truth in Fiction - Understanding 'Write What You Know'

Of all writing advice, I think the most frequently misunderstood is 'write what you know'. So many people I speak to, including students, seem to have the unshakeable belief that this means we cannot write about anything if we do not have direct experience of it.

This just isn't true. 'Write what you know' strikes me as being nothing more than the perennial idea that we should be expressing various kinds of truth, boiled down into a vague and less than helpful aphorism. I'm pretty sure what we're mainly talking about here is psychological truth. That for detail, visualisation and procedure Professor Google will do, so long as we are able to match our inner truth to these externals.

So while we may not have direct experience of selling dimebags of cocaine on the streets of New York, if we understand the corrosive effects of despair and crippling anxiety, it might be possible to produce something like Clockers. If we understand how it feels to be utterly overwhelmed by fear, then we can probably, after quite a lot of research, write a war story.

A scene from the Spike Lee adaptation of Richard Price's 'Clockers'.
This is exactly what Stephen Crane did in order to produce The Red Badge of Courage. In this story, we follow the fortunes of a private at a battle which may or may not be Chancellorsville, watching as he first fights, succumbs to battlefield panic and cowardice, then is redeemed by turning off his finer feelings and giving in to the animalistic nature of violence. The theme is the fallacy of Romantic conceptions of heroism, but the effect is one of total realism. On its publication, the novel received rave reviews, with many Civil War veterans utterly convinced that Crane must have been writing as a veteran of that battle himself. This despite the fact that Crane was twenty four, had never seen a battlefield, and was born several years after the end of the war.

So how did he do it? Crane himself, when called upon to explain it said, "Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field, or else fighting is a hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively; for the Cranes were a family of fighters in the old days." Which sounds like two parts bullshit to me, but we can hone in on the bit about the football field, as many of the emotions experienced in group violence of any kind can be directly and realistically transposed into any other.

Team sports can provide insight into many kinds of organised group violence.
It's pretty obvious, though, that this alone will not be enough. We need to think outside the square a little, like Crane did, and find feelings and reactions within our experiential grab-bags which might apply. Take this passage, for example, where his narrator is appalled to discover that the line from which he fled actually held, thus making his desertion an even more criminal act of cowardice.

"Thoughts of his comrades came to him. The brittle blue line had withstood the blows and won. He grew bitter over it. It seemed that the blind ignorance and stupidity of those little pieces had betrayed him. He had been overturned and crushed by their lack of sense in holding the position, when intelligent deliberation would have convinced them that it was impossible. He, the enlightened man who looks afar in the dark, had fled because of his superior perceptions and knowledge. He felt a great anger against his comrades. He knew it could be proved that they had been fools." 

Who isn't familiar with this kind of angry self-justification in the face of moral failure? We feel it and use it almost every day, and its inclusion in this narrative context lends the story a surprising weight of authority.

But the mainstay of the novel is in its study of fear.

"He yelled then with fright and swung about. For a moment, in the great clamor, he was like a proverbial chicken. He lost the direction of safety. Destruction threatened him from all points." 

"He began to exaggerate the endurance, the skill, and the valor of those who were coming. [...] he was astonished beyond measure at such persistency. They must be machines of steel. It was very gloomy struggling against such affairs, wound up perhaps to fight until sundown." 

"The lieutenant sprang forward bawling. The youth saw his features wrathfully red, and saw him make a dab with his sword. His one thought of the incident was that the lieutenant was a peculiar creature to feel interested in such matters upon this occasion."

We are repeatedly confronted with startling moments of psychological truth. In the face of many moments like these, we find ourselves willing to accept the vagueness of Crane's battlefield details, the obviously fictional sequence of happenings and encounters, the characters who appear with such serendipity in order to illustrate some aspect of the developing theme - none of this really matters in the face of the fact that the narrator is reacting truthfully and realistically to his circumstances. 

It takes some intelligence, and a lot of research and fact-finding, but yes - it is eminently possible to write convincingly about unfamiliar setting and situations. It's not so much about knowing something before we write it, but rather a process of discovering within any situation that which we already knew, and then writing to that knowledge.

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