Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writing what you know.

There’s a writing adage that you should “write what you know” then there’s the first seemingly opposite “writing to find out”. In fact, I think it’s the subtle interplay between the two that makes things interesting when you write but sometimes it also makes things difficult.

I don’t believe “write what you know” should be taken literally—if it were, we wouldn’t have science-fiction, or fantasy or anything really aside from versions of biography and autobiography. Boring. In my mind, writing what you know is a twofold piece of advice:
1.    If there is any factual component to your fiction, know it and know it well.
2.    Write from an emotional place of truth.

This second part is more related to the idea that even ‘made up stuff’ should have an emotional honesty about it. It should come from and express real emotions even if the events that elicit these emotions are not events that the author has ever experienced.

As a writer undertaking creative-practice research, I am mandated to “write to find out”. My practice by its nature of contributing to my PhD, must create new knowledge. This mandate does not necessarily make the difficult bits any easier.

I started out my whole project in a place where I was relatively comfortable. My project aims to cover the experiences of six different cultural groups, women in particular, who have migrated to Australia. For the first suite of stories, I focused on British migrants.

Starting with the first major non-indigenous migration to Australia meant I had to write historical fiction and I had a vague plan that I would follow the waves of migration to Australia chronologically. Once I was done with the British section, though, I was kind of tired of writing historical fiction and decided to jump to a much more contemporary group of migrants—Somali refugees.

The idea excited me, which was precisely why I’d decided to make the leap in time frame. I needed to be re-invigorated about my writing and this new cultural focus meant no more researching historical events, clothes, townships, speech patterns and colloquialisms in order to make my stories believable. But moving out of my comfort zone in another way proved more difficult than any of that.

Moving away from a cultural heritage that I know and understand reasonably well, to one that I did not, was a leap that made me incredibly uncomfortable. I doubted my ability to understand and accurately represent Somali culture in my fiction but I also doubted my right to even try. I had previously come up against similar doubts when one of my stories included an Aboriginal character. As a white woman, what right do I have to represent a minority culture?

For a while these doubts froze the words in me and I didn’t write anything. In the end, I realised I had to find a way get it done or change my whole PhD topic. I still baulked at the idea of leaping into a culture is so unfamiliar to me. But, appropriately enough, the way in was the food. I started cooking Somali food from the Somali Food Blog which is taking the place of community cookbooks in this part of my project. Cooking the food and preparing the spices as well as the visuals and music from the blog were jumping off points for my creative writing and they helped me to get started. I’m still very cautious about the Colonial paternalism inherent in what I’m doing and it still makes me nervous but I’m in it now. And all I can do is write my way out with emotional honesty.


  1. I've come to think of "Write what you know" as one of the more daft things people tell beginning writers. It's trite and it's untrue. I think it would be better to tell them to "just write" and tell them that there's no magic pill, no easy way - no magic formula that creates interesting and unique work.

    In any case, I also think that anyone who asks, "As a white woman, what right do I have to represent a minority culture?"

    Is being intellectually dishonest.

  2. No, not intellectually dishonest at all. Just nervous & cautious, antihippy. I'm very aware of how I might represent 'others' (in all senses of the term) and that actually includes how I might represent men (not exactly a minority). There is just more weight to the anxiety when it comes to minority cultures or groups. But I'm coming to realise that writing is anxiety for me. Perhaps that's what keeps me honest, a level of worry.