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June 2, 2012

“Write What You Know?” No.

by Howard Suber

There is no writer alive who has not been advised, “Write what you know.” And there are few writers who have not, in the course of following this advice, spent months or years producing a personally cathartic but boringly predictable work.    

Too often, writers think that “write what you know” means “write what you’ve lived.”  But personal experience doesn’t necessarily mean you really “know” your subject.  The veteran who grows angry when someone discusses the Battle of the Marne, Battle of the Bulge, or Battle of Baghdad, and asserts his superior knowledge by saying, “I know! I was there!” was likely to have been in a foxhole or under a Humvee, covering his head to protect himself from exploding bombs. What he probably saw, if he dared stick his head up at all, was at most a couple hundred yards of terrain, filled with a chaos of smoke, fire, and mangled bodies. What, then, does the veteran know? He may know the terror of war but not much beyond that. The general at the back of the lines has a wider perspective, but he still only knows what happened on his side of conflict. The historian or storyteller who was not actually present but has the testimony and records from both sides of the battle can sometimes write a more complete history than any single eye witness.

When you’re writing a story, eye witness testimony is even less crucial. What did Paul Schrader know of pimps, prostitutes, and political campaigns when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976)? What did Mario Puzo know of the Mafia when he wrote the novel The Godfather (1972)? For that matter, what did Coppola know when he collaborated with Puzo on the screenplay?

Herman Mankiewicz, who created a good proportion of the characters, lines, and scenes for Citizen Kane (1941), knew William Randolph Hearst personally, but that personal knowledge wasn’t enough, which is why Mankiewicz got a number of the details from a book (enough so the author of the book could successfully sue him).

Did any of the writers of America’s myriad Westerns know anything that was true about the period they were depicting? And what could of the writers of 2001 (1968), Star Wars (1983), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Terminator (1984), or any other science fiction film know of the future?

What did Shakespeare know of Danes or Italians, Jews or Romans? The fact that Will was not a member of the court has convinced some that “Shakespeare” was just a front for somebody else who was a member. This kind of thinking is exactly the impoverished attitude I am challenging here: the assumption that not only should you write about what you have directly experienced but that you can’t write convincingly about that which you haven’t experienced.

On one level, what you “know” is largely based on your own personal experience. For most human beings, however, that experience isn’t much and certainly isn’t enough to sustain most people through a creative career. This is not to denigrate the value of experience, but it is to suggest that, all by itself, personal experience can lock you into a creative universe that is quite limited.

When writers do “write what they know” in this sense, they quickly run out of material. Then, they have to run out and get more life experiences so they have something more to write about. They can, of course, do what many writers have done, which is to essentially write about the same kind of experience over and over again, changing a bit here and there to give the appearance of something new.

In novels, the writer is often both the subject and object of the story. This is not nearly as true in drama, and virtually never true in film. (Trying pitching a story in which you begin, “This is about a screenwriter…”) Audiences aren’t interested in you; they’re interested in themselves, which is why the most popular dramatic characters are surrogates for the audience, not the author.

Popular movies involve a kind of compensation process in which the audience experiences in the dark what they have often failed to experience in the harsh light of their lives. The most beloved films touch some fundamental chord within the audience, and like a fundamental in music, its most interesting quality is how it resonates.

The kind of “knowing” that you need is not gained just through experience or research. It comes from compassion, which is one of the creative person’s most valuable tools. With sufficient compassion, you can “know” almost anything well enough to make a movie about it.

– Excerpted from Letters to Young Filmmakers. Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber

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