Friday, 13 February 2015

WWYK? No thanks.

I used to be guilty of it. God help me, I was terrible, and I’m sorry. As a teacher, for years I begged my secondary school pupils, when they were ‘doing’ creative writing, Write what you know. You’ll do a better job, especially in exam conditions. In my defence, there are only so many variations on pixies/wizard schools/families-massacred-by-intruder stories a person can read without going insane. (I did go a smidgeon insane. I realised it when I saw that I had written on someone’s story, This is tiresomely derivative. He was eleven.)

And it’s true that when they simply wrote about something that had actually happened they tended to do it better – but that was 100% because they were deskilled in an education system which marginalises creative writing, not because there is something intrinsically good about writing what you know.

I was a complete hypocrite of course. I had never followed WWYK, either as a child, a teenager (my books were pure wish-fulfilment) or as a professional writer.
some soppy wish-fulfilment, aged 15

The word that is most often used about my novels is realistic. I like that. I hate fantasy (sorry, fantasy fans and writers). But it takes a lot of artifice to make something seem realistic, and it certainly doesn’t simply involve writing what you know.  

When Taking Flight, my first novel, came out, readers much preferred the voice of the male over the female narrator. This meant a lot to me, because – though instinctively I knew that his voice was more authentic, and certainly had come more easily – there had been, deep-down, a nagging suspicion that perhaps I wasn’t really allowed to write from a male point of view? That it wasn’t playing fair by the WWYK rules. After all, I have never been a teenage boy.

It’s always mattered to me that books write authentically and authoritatively about any subject they tackle. As a pony-mad child, I noticed and cared that K.M. Peyton knew whereof she wrote; when an editor wanted me to describe a grey horse as white I refused: a grey horse is never described as white, even if it is. Many of my readers wouldn’t know, but I wasn’t prepared to break faith with those who did.

But authenticity isn’t the same as WWYK

My new novel, Still Falling, is out on the 26th February. There are no horses. There is love. There is sexual violence. The main character has epilepsy. There is a lot of trauma.

There is a lot in this book that I have never encountered personally. Just as, in Grounded, I wrote about teen suicide with a profound sense of responsibility which involved a lot of research, I took the preparation for writing from the point of view of a character with epilepsy very seriously. I spent weeks on epilepsy support sites, read dozens of books, and – most importantly, as I have done for everything I’ve ever written about – used my imagination. Not just my making-up-stories imagination, but empathy: What would that feel like? Now what would it feel like if I was seventeen? What would it feel like if I was seventeen and this was my first day at a new school where I wanted to stay invisible?

It’s always a bit scary when a new book hits the world. Yesterday I came across a review which, for the first time, went into detail about the epilepsy aspect:

I have to say something, first of all about the way Wilkinson handles her depiction of epilepsy...she has it exactly right. The way she shows what happens with a seizure, the dangers of simply 'falling' and the effects this condition has on a person’s view of themselves, along with the misconceptions and concerns of those who lives are intertwined with someone with epilepsy is spot on. (

Phew. This felt like another endorsement of going beyond WWYK.

I was lecturing Masters Creative Writing students recently. Their tutor mentioned how attached they seemed to be to memoir-writing, and the very first question I was asked was about WWYK. And I said –

Write what you don’t know. 
Write about what you want to know.
Write about what you’re very glad you don’t have to know.
Write about what you love.
Write about what you hate.
Write about what scares you.
Write about what excites you.

And to generations of my former pupils – I would say sorry for burdening you with the old WWYK thing, but fortunately no one of you ever took the blindest bit of notice of me. So that’s OK.
aged 9 -- orphan heroine sets out in world -- she has never heard of WWYK


Sue Purkiss said...

It's funny how certain bits of advice turn into diktats, isn't it? 'Write what you know', 'Show don't tell' etc - they have a kernel of excellent sense, but they're not the whole truth and nothing but the truth...

Susan Price said...

I agree, Sheena. I've hardly ever 'written about what I know' - yet in another sense, I always have.

I've never lived in the early 16th century, but I've written about it - I think what I do is, I put what I know into my research. So, I've never lived an outdoor life in the 16th century - but I have tramped for miles across rough country. I know what the early morning air is like, I know how the quality of sound changes with the time of day...

I read about dark, hot, smoky 16th century kitchens and think, where have I been that's like that? - And use it. I think you search your emotional and sensory experience, and bundle it up with your research, and so try to make it as real as you can. So you're using what you know to write about what you don't know.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Sheena, and I totally agree. 'Write about what you want to know' - And Sue - spot on.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks everyone! It's so much more fun to write what you don't know, isn't it? And Susan -- that's so true. In my current Secret WIP, the MC is living one hundred years ago but culturally her background is more like mine than any other character in my work so far. It's about adapting what you know, as you say.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Personally, I prefer SF to fantasy, but that's not what you meant, is it? *Good* fantasy involves knowing what you're talking about, creating a world based on this one, whether it's history or something else, because there is only so much you can change in a world in which there are humans and the animals and landscapes are like ours. I write fantasy because it IS what I know. Writing what I know doesn't have to be writing the story of a teacher librarian, but I do know about the Middle Ages(and how to research what I don't) and I know about folklore and I know what it's like to put on at least a bit of armour and what it feels like to be hit on your helmet with a sword(I was in the SCA for a few years). So you could say I'm writing about what I know. I can't write hard SF because I simply can't handle the physics and chemistry required.

I have a friend who has been known to walk in the desert with armour on so he could write it into his novel(his wife was driving her car alongside him, he wasn't silly enough to go out there alone! )

When a student of mine writes a story about the Taliban and has her hero in a Taliban boarding school with girls, all of the characters with Anglo names(she is Vietnamese, by the way) I gently suggest that perhaps she could make it an imaginary country because asking her to "write what she knows" or even go do her research would dry up the story writing altogether.