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Writers Wednesday: 5 Lies They Tell You About Writing

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This season, while promoting my fourth novel, I was asked about certain "truisms of the trade" that are frequently served up as gospel for writers. But how true are they, really? Upon reflection I have to say--not very. At best, they are half-truths: at worst, they are straightjackets for budding authors. Here's why.

1. Write What You Know.

Consider the fact that this particular aphorism often comes from the very publishing gatekeepers--agents, editors, trade journalists, reviewers, teachers--who in reality get quite ecstatic over novels about dead girls who watch from heaven as their families mourn them; little boys who go to fancy prep schools for wizards; husbands who escape doing carpool duty by time-traveling; shy, odd-duck girls who date vampires; and mild-mannered recovering drug addicts who write scandalous memoirs that turn out to be--well, fiction.

So--write what you know, are you kidding? It's not as if this advice is meant to encourage aspiring authors to write about their deepest insights into life and death. Quite the opposite--this gem is usually trotted out to warn writers off the Big Topics. But at the same time, new writers are repeatedly cautioned that the world isn't holding its breath for yet another novel about first love or difficult parents or a troubled marriage, unless the writer has some startling new take on these well-trod subjects.

Then, what's left? Standing in line at supermarkets or banks? Chatting blandly with dog-walking neighbors about the weather? Grabbing a stale cup of coffee on the way to a job they would gladly ditch? Sure, sometimes you can make a good story out of life's minutiae. (Although I for one wouldn't shed a tear if I never again heard a writer wax lyrically about his latest visit to Starbuck's.)

Why should new writers complacently write only about what they think they already know? It's a false safety net for the fainthearted. Writing is meant to be a thrilling act of discovery, where you follow your instincts and go headlong into the unknown. So what if you fall flat on your rear? That's how you figure out how to land on your feet the next time.

2. Descriptions are passé. Brand names are cool.

Many writing instructors routinely discourage new authors from describing their characters and the world they inhabit. Why? Two reasons are usually given. One is that it isn't "modern" to do so (Hemingway is often cited here); and the other is because it's so darned hard to describe stuff (like sure, what are you, a writer or something?) so--wink, wink--if you don't actually have the requisite talent to describe what you envision, don't worry, you can still pass for an author by hiding behind simple, blameless prose. Wrong!

Perhaps that explains why so many writers use brand names in place of original description. Let's call this for what it is: mere product placement, for which the authors didn't even get paid. (At least, I hope they didn't.) Look, I don't mind the occasional "Scotch tape", or even "xerox" used as a verb. But Lord, do we really need to hear from yet another desperate housewife about her mind-numbing collection of Manolos and Choos, or the brand of bottled water she drinks?
Worse yet is to lazily describe a character merely by saying, "He looked like George Clooney." It may be quick and easy shorthand, yet it ends up short-changing one's readers, not only depriving them of an author's particular take on what makes George Clooney an interesting-looking man, but also of what else makes your character more compelling than just a bloke who resembles a movie star.

So if you can't describe things well, you're not a writer. Take up playing the zither instead.

3. Fiction is a lie.

If we are going to be persnickety and literal-minded, we might say that fiction is a made-up story about events that haven't technically occurred to people who don't physically exist. But that doesn't mean fiction isn't honest.

Pundits and reporters routinely abuse the word "fictitious," as in, "The Senator's statement that he never took campaign contributions from a foreign government turned out to be fictitious," when what they really mean to say is, "The Senator is a big fat liar."

My point is that the word "lie" implies a certain duplicitous intent, whereas fiction is designed to be playful and even visionary. So it's a bit disingenuous when a novelist himself announces rather grandly, "We all know that fiction is a lie." Is he just hoping that you'll view him as a romantic, roguish con artist, instead of a slightly nerdy fellow who spends his time ensconced in a small room while making little pecking noises at his computer? Or is he slyly assuring us that his fiction isn't so serious that it will rock the boat with genuinely challenging ideas?

The truth is, good fiction takes us beyond the realm of "facts" and into a greater understanding of the fundamental truths of human existence. In a world where facts as we know them are routinely distorted and conflated by vested interests, fiction can be a gold standard.

4. Literary fiction equals literature (and is therefore superior to genre fiction).

First of all, literary fiction these days is a genre, in which the prose style generally reigns over plot. Sometimes it rises to the level of literature; sometimes not.

Proponents of literary fiction can be quite sniffy about plotting--as if it's a lowbrow, sweaty job, best reserved for those who pander to the unwashed readers of pulp fiction. The inconvenient truth--that much of the best literature contains strong plots--is sometimes dismissed as "old-fashioned," but literature has little to do with fashions or fads.

Could it be that the writing of a good, developed storyline is a fine, highly special skill that sometimes eludes the literary scribbler who exhausts all his strength in the writing of fancy prose? The moment of truth surfaces when someone tries to make a movie out of a literary novel and it fails. The lofty scribe will defensively claim that the film medium just isn't subtle enough to capture his nuanced work of art.

Nonsense. "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Brideshead Revisited" made for lovely films. So did John Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead." Therefore if your novel doesn't translate well to the silver screen, then it's possible that either the filmmakers botched it, or else--and bookies would probably take these odds--you just didn't write enough of a story to begin with.
So let's not confuse "literary" with "literature". Literary fiction can be beautiful in all its impressionistic and delicate splendor. But literature is more than that; it's a magical combination of an elegant prose style, unique characters and a compelling story whose theme resonates so deeply that, even long afterward, when you've closed the book and are going on about your own life, you find yourself still thinking about its timeless insights.

5. "Hey, writers are entertainers. I'm not trying to be Tolstoy."

I've tried to figure out why it bothers me when a writer say this. I think the problem is that he's not ruefully saying, "Well, I'm no Tolstoy". Instead he's saying, "I'm not trying to be Tolstoy." That key word, "trying", presupposes that any writer can wake up one bright morning and say, "Let's see, shall I be a genius or a jester?" as if selecting which outfit to wear.

It's laudable if a writer recognizes his limitations; but by exaggerating with the pinnacle of Tolstoy, he's absolving himself from writing anything meaningful at all, and implying that it's rather idiotic for any author to aim for more than simple entertainment.

But even lighthearted writing--as in Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw or Noel Coward--can unmask the hypocrisy of the author's time, making readers reconsider the usual way that society functions, awakening us to the fallout of our own collective as well as personal self-delusion and complicity.

What does it say about our times, then, if contemporary authors can't even contemplate questioning authority, much less radically changing society for the better? Unfortunately we've left that field wide open to the crazies who write hate-filled, disposable tracts for disingenuous political candidates. Frankly, we could use a few Tolstoys nowadays.

So, out with these five lies that deaden instead of inspire! If writers are modest about their talent and truly dedicated to honing it, then why not keep one brave ear cocked just in case your muse feels like whispering something profound to you today?