Write what you know? Know what you write? I’d rather wing it, thanks
Navel- or novel-gazing approach to literature doesn’t test the writer and too much research can ground flights of fancy, argues The Glorious Heresies author Lisa McInerney
Lisa McInerney: Like almost every “rule” for writers, the idea that one should write what they know or know what they write makes me a little bit huffy, a little bit protective of the art in writing. Writing is best when it’s alchemical, unpredictable. The greatest stuff comes when a writer is winging it. Photograph: Alan Betson
The first notion of what was to become The Glorious Heresies came to me as a brief scene, one I thought might be self-contained, and so I wondered for a bit whether it wasn’t a collection of short stories I was headed for.
Even though it wasn’t long before I realised I was writing a novel, I still had in my head the ensemble cast of a collection: a coke-dealing romantic, a shambolic penitent in a maxi dress, a prolific father who won’t grow up, a wraithlike predator convinced of her own sainthood, a commonsensical gangland boss, an aspirant sage mad as a box of frogs. They’re thrown together when the aspirant sage clobbers an intruder with a religious ornament and kills him – acts like that tend to ripple outwards. If you’re meant to write what you know, then readers of The Glorious Heresies would be forgiven for giving me a wide berth.
Happily, I’m not sold on the write-what-you-know approach.
Writing what you know is certainly a legitimate technique; what better way to tap into a truth than use one’s own experiences as a means of exploration? There’ll be at the very least a sliver of individual insight, invaluable, possibly even beautiful. But on the other hand, if a writer writes only what the writer knows then the writer is giving themselves an easy time of things. It benefits the reader, of course, to be exposed to individual insight, and the reader is the important person in the transaction. But it doesn’t at all push the writer. The process can instead veer rather close to navel-gazing. Or novel-gazing.
Which is why you have novels out there in which a creative person struggles with some creative quandary and comes to some creative conclusion by documenting, with individual insight, the creative quandaries of their world, possibly with the occasional insightful help of their social circle of fellow creatives, each as verbose as they are sexually voracious. Gorgeous! But ultimately a little bit narcissistic. And easy. And so terribly limited. And it rather romanticises the creative life, which is frequently less a romantic endeavour than it is a repulsive state. I spend all day in tracksuit bottoms eating Mug Shots.
Some thinkers suggest that the best way to escape from the limitations of the write-what-you-know advice is to invert it, and, instead, simply know what you write. On the face of it, this is a much more workable kind of process because it expands the sandbox. With the right research, there are no characters, plot lines or emotional states off-limits, and the writer gets to do what writers are meant to do: pin the world to the page.
Ah, but the research. It is vital if a writer intends to fictionalise a historic event or have their characters struggle with creative woes in Times Past, but otherwise, the process can be academic to a detrimental degree (Behold the period details! Look on my treatise, ye mortals, and quake!), or so enabling of procrastination it leads to self-delusion and missed deadlines. The novelist should certainly know-what-they-write. Just, perhaps, not too intimately.
In my experience, the more you know about what you want to write, the more you ground whatever flight of fancy it was in the first place. Knowledge is power . . . and power corrupts. So perhaps the best thing to do is neither to write what you know or know what you write, but write something you cannot wholly trust. It is the writer’s duty to encroach, to understand what isn’t necessarily theirs to document.
I felt it essential to force a bit of distance between myself and my characters, because otherwise I might have ended up with an assemblage of lefty urchins whose idea of a fine time was a 12-hour Mario Kart session and two bottles of Aldi Shiraz. I added details to their lives that I would have no natural understanding of. I had them do things I find bizarre or reprehensible. I had them thinking in languages I haven’t a word of. I gave them fortes I don’t understand. This made sure they weren’t all too alike, or too like me. A second, more satisfying objective: there was a sense of unpredictability to the novel as I was writing it, so that I could never be sure how a particular character would react to the chaos building around them.
An ensemble cast is going to be barely manageable even under the edicts of a dictatorial writer, but this unmanageability can be the whole point of choosing to work with a glut of participants. In throwing a number of different personalities into the story I ensured that I would never be sure exactly where it was going, and though for some writers that might sound like hell on a Word document, it suited me. I’m not entirely confident in my plot machinations, so what better way around my doubts than to curate a cast of ne’er-do-wells and let them do the work?
Like almost every “rule” for writers, the idea that one should write what they know or know what they write makes me a little bit huffy, a little bit protective of the art in writing. Writing is best when it’s alchemical, unpredictable. The greatest stuff comes when a writer is winging it.
The Glorious Heresis is published in paperback by John Murray, at £8.99. As always, Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers. Come and listen to Lisa McInerney read from her novel and discuss it with Martin Doyle, Assistant Literary Editor of The Irish Times, at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, March 24th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €5/€3 in advancde, or €7 on the door, to include a glass of wine.