what you knowabout dragons!
~ Scott Westerfeld on Instagram 5/14/16
I had to share this for my Writing Thoughts this week, because it’s just such good advice, don’t you think? 🙂
I ran across this picture today of Scott Westerfeld, the author of eighteen YA and adult novels, through the Facebook page of Todd Lockwood, the author of the recently published The Summer Dragon: First Book of the Evertide (see my original post for more details on that).
And even though I was supposed to be writing the new Neeka chapter for the Discover Challenge today, instead, I spent the day working on this post! So, apologies, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the continuation of the story.
Westerfeld is one of my husband’s favorite authors, and Lockwood is certainly a new favorite of mine. I’m almost finished reading The Summer Dragon, although those pesky writing prompts I keep tackling have been getting in the way of curling up with such a good book. Hopefully I’ll finish it up this weekend though.
But let’s get back to this advice to write about dragons, instead of to “write what you know.” Even though he’s being glib, it’s nice to see Scott turning the old clichéd phrase on it’s head and challenging us to write about something we can’t possibly “know,” except through our own imagination and the writings and imaginings of others, since dragons aren’t something we can go experience for ourselves in the physical world.
Author Bret Anthony Johnston wrote a great longform essay for The Atlantic in 2011 called Don’t Write What You Know: Why fiction’s narrative and emotional integrity will always transcend the literal truth that I highly recommend everyone go check out. He shares many insights into why we can use what we know, but then we have to build a new narrative from there, rather than clinging to the facts of true personal stories which don’t leave room for artistic storytelling.
Here he talks about how some of the great authors of classic literature created characters with empathy and compassion that resonated with readers, despite not having these real world experiences:
Was Toni Morrison a slave? Did she ever slit a child’s throat? Was Nabokov, in light of his “fancy prose style,” a murderer? Has Haruki Murakami ever constructed a flute from the souls of cats? Yes, Flannery O’Connor limped, but did she ever lose a wooden leg to a huckster Bible salesman? Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, but, as the narrator of “Good Form” says, “almost everything else is invented.” Even without extended research, I can guarantee Ron Carlson has never spilled oil onto the head of a Visigoth.
(The works referenced in this quote are: Morrison – Beloved; Nabokov – Lolita; Murakami – Kafka on the Shore; O’Connor – Good Country People; O’Brien – Good Form; and Carlson – What We Wanted to Do.)
I’ve never flown a UAV in an illegal race, nor lived as a hunter-gatherer on the open steppe, but because both Neeka and Kite are fully realized characters (to me at least, now I have to convey them to my audience), I think their stories will resonate with readers, or at least be something people enjoy reading.
So as I leave you with another piece of Todd Lockwood’s wonderful dragon artwork, called Birdfeeder, I want to challenge you to take a quick break from writing what you know, to follow this advice. Let’s all write about something we don’t know, and see where it takes us, as Bret suggests. Or you could write about dragons, as Scott recommends. I’d love to see what you come up with either way!
And as for my Discover Challenge post, I promise to have it up tomorrow. Thanks as always for reading!