A few posts ago I demonstrated how fiction doesn't have the same luxury as nonfiction to be unrealistic, because fiction requires an umbilical connection to reality for both the writer and the audience to maintain immersion, or as John Gardner says, stay in "the fictional dream." Because nonfiction is born from reality, it actually thrives on potentially-real intangibles and un-actualized possibilities, whereas fiction is born from a drive to represent and indicate reality, so drastic flights from reality can break down fiction, and the fictional dream, quickly. Both are real, but where are the boundaries and limitations?
Mark Twain's famous advice to "Write what you know" actually has more facets than commonly thought, which help address this question. Even a superficial interpretation of this quote provides effective advice because it calibrates the author's imagination toward their actual, physical experience, which develops a strong fictional dream. But that's just one facet. Specificity is the keystone to understanding the other facet.
Twain's advice shows how direct experience nourishes writing. Although it's the common understanding, it's true and accurate because the direct experience calibrates the writer's attention, provides them fine detail, and allows them to imbue a certain emotional tone into the piece. All of these--plus others--breathe life into literature, which is why Twain's advice still holds strong. The other facet--a lesser common one--is done through method acting. Nathan Englander, a judge of the Big Think, Short Fiction contest, says that Twain's advice is horribly misunderstood because writers believe that direct experience is the sole feeder of organic writing. This relates to method acting in that fiction writers call up a certain experience or emotion to get themselves into empathic alignment with the character or story. That story or plot line may be completely made up, but since they're writing from a genuine emotional or mental standpoint similar to their character or plot line, they're still writing what they know. The specific details are indeed different, however, the specific experience being called upon to inform the piece is the same. This can be a slippery slope though, because romantic, imaginative writers have the potential to dream up localities and situations completely alien to their direct or emotional experience, but feel as though they're real because they originated them. Just because a writer feels something doesn't make it real, which is why specificity is an effective standard for writers to use to originate and judge their substance. Recalling some real and specific component, aspect, or situation keeps fiction grounded, whether or not the plot line or character was specifically experienced in the writer's life. The more genuine experiences and affects a writer can incorporate, the more gritty and realistic the fiction becomes, which leads right back to the common interpretation of "Write what you know," that our actual experiences inform and ground our fictional writing.
Click the RSS FEED button below to receive notification of new Orwell 365 posts.