Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Write What You Know


My literary crush on Lionel Shriver resurfaced with a vengeance this week when BBC Radio 4 broadcast its excellent adaption of We Need to Talk About Kevin, followed by an interview with the author. This book is a favourite of mine, and I’ve not been swayed by the complaints I’ve heard from almost everyone I know that its subject matter is “too hard”. For those of you who haven’t read or heard of it, Kevin tells the chilling story of a woman who has failed, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child. The vile Kevin takes a crossbow to school and massacres his schoolmates, and society blames his mother. The reason I remain in awe of Shriver’s achievement is the fact that the subject matter is hard, and that it is a remarkable imaginative feat to conjure up a Kevin and the family that made him. Imagine spending so many creative hours, months and years in the company of a monster. Imagine spending so much creative time painstakingly detailing the hideously ambivalent feelings of his mother despite not being a parent yourself. I stand in awe.

Aspiring writers are frequently fed the homily to “write what you know”. Shriver patently ignored this to write her novel. She admits in the interview that she did some research, but quickly grew bored with it, and just got on with the actual writing project. The essence of the broadcast interview is that psychoanalysts and therapists are using Shriver’s book to understand better relationships of abuse between children and parents. While this is a huge compliment for the author, and she is gracious about it, she is at pains to reiterate that the book is a work of fiction and not an academic text. She recalls a psychologist using the fact that Eva’s father has died to analyse her inability to relate to Kevin, and laughs, “She doesn’t have a father because I killed him off so I didn’t have another character to write about”.

While I find it inspiring that a novel can be so true, can pierce so accurately to the heart of things, that it can become a kind of handbook for practitioners, the main inspiration I take from Shriver’s writing is her fearless imagining of the dark side, her refusal to shun repellent characters and her imaginative leap into things unknown to her.

The novel I am writing is set in South Africa, because that is what I know, but also because my heart has a story to tell there. One of things that has been holding me back is my fear of writing a black protagonist. Now call me a product of apartheid, or call me what you will, but to me that seemed such a presumptuous act: assuming that I might have an inkling of what black experience in South Africa has been like, assuming that I have the right to try to write that. During my years at UCT, where I studied African Literature, we were taught by some that it is an act of colonialism to try appropriate someone’s experience. Each time I started this novel, I faltered because how could I write a novel set in South Africa without black characters? Was it not even more patronising to only represent black people from the white prism? How could I even begin to represent multiplicity if my novel’s perspective was white-only? Was that not racist in itself?

Those of you who read my last post will know that I have started the first few steps towards writing a black protagonist. It’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling, and I am already more than a little in love with Lindiwe. Luckily for her and me it is not her job alone to hold up the foundations of the story; there are others. Listening to the adaption of Shriver’s book, however, reminded me that writing can be a bold act, and that’s what I aspire to: daring and fearless feats of imagination. I don’t have to write what I know.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

21 thoughts on “Write What You Know

  1. It was such a huge revelation to me that I could just make stuff up in writing my novel. If I had to write what I know…well, that would be a very short book.

    Your writing is so authentic, I don’t think you need to worry about writing in the “other’s” voice at all.

  2. I can sympathize with your worries, but maybe you can make the leap just because there is part of you who wants to be Lindiwe and needs to tell her story. The yearning in each of us to be someone stronger, wiser, more complete than we see ourselves to be can fuel our imaginations greatly. I think, hope, you can become your Lindiwe.

    It is hard to imagine what motivated Shriver to get inside the skin of her protagonist.

  3. I’m not convinced that writing about other people is “appropriating someone’s experience.” Jane Austen never married, yet she wrote about married life extensively. Perhaps we could say she “appropriated” the lives of those she observed for her own comedic purposes. In your case, my impression is not that you are lampooning or in any way disrespecting the black South African experience; on the contrary, you are working from a loving and honoring foundation.

    I’m reading van der Posts’s A Far Off Place, having finished the knuckle-biting end of A Story Like the Wind last night in the wee hours. Certainly we could say that he, as an Afrikaner (pardon me if I’m using the wrong word), could not truly be able to speak from the Bushman or Matabele perspective (again, forgive me, I’m using his terms even if they’re not considered right these days). But his books are nothing if not honorable and loving. In fact he directly opposing any sense of “colonization” in these books, explicitly criticizing those who only want to “improve” native Africans without learning anything from them in return.

    I can sympathize with those who struggled for so long for oppressed groups to have their own voices. However if we can assume that black South Africans have reclaimed their voice, then why do we need to continue to cloak our thinking in “us” and “them” at all? Why could you not come from the perspective of being a South African, and leave it at that?

    Feel free to tell me that as an American, I have no idea about what I am speaking of. That may be true. But the criticisms you remember from UCT strike me much the same as those of ardent feminists who might be tempted to rebuke me for eschewing the working life after all their hard work gaining access to it: their hard work, rather, was to give me the choice, not to lock me in a new prison of their making. Telling you that you can only write white characters is just as wrong.

  4. I have a literary crush on Lionel Shriver, too.

  5. Thanks, YogaMum. But what revelation to suddenly learn that making things up is okay. Why didn’t I know this all along?

    Lia, that’s an interesting way of looking at it: that I want to inhabit someone older and wiser. But I will probably also have to inhabit someone younger and more foolish too, just to make it interesting. As why or how Lionel Shriver could spend so much time with Kevin and his mother, I find it awesome. She has tenacity!

    Thanks, Henitserk for your detailed and thoughtful comment. I have to remember what I learnt at UCT was a long time ago, in the deep dark days of apartheid. South Africa has moved on, as you say, and so can I. Glad to hear you are loving the Lawrens van der Post books. (And speaking of crushes, I watched Pride and Prejudice again last night – in German, for my own education. Colin is just as gorgeous when he’s speaking Deutsch.)

    Bybee, glad to hear I’m not alone!

  6. Thanks for the BBC link. I don’t want to read We need to talk about Kevin right now because I think it would increase my worry about not being a good mother etc., but I sure admire Shriver to tackling such a subject.
    Reading what you were taught at UCT nearly incensed me. How can you write a piece of fiction if you have to stick to your own experience only? Can’t you write about a man when you’re a woman? What about historical fiction, science fiction etc.? I completely support you in your attempt to write about a black character. Appropriate someone else’s experience in the process of writing is an act of projection, of creation, but also literally a consequence of sympathy (which in latin means suffer for or with s.o.), just go for it!

  7. Interesting – I might give We need to talk about Kevin a go. Have never been too sure about Shriver, as she comes across as strident and slightly crazy in interviews – but you’ve convinced me to re-think my initial prejudice.

  8. Smithereens, actually I feel pretty angry too, thinking back, especially to think how long it’s shackled me creatively. However with your support and that of others, I’m moving forward at last. Hooray! And I understand not wanting to read Kevin while you’re pregnant. There are so many other lovely validating things to read right now.

    Mother at Large, thanks for your visit! Shriver does come across as slightly crazy, but that only increases my crush on her. I love the madness. What I admire in her writing is how well she does unpleasant characters – her new novel The Post-Birthday World (which is a book that one could read while pregnant) is full of them.

  9. Your post reminded me of the comment made by Laurence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman during the filming of ‘Marathon Man’.

    “… There are two versions: co-star Dustin Hoffman had either stayed up the whole weekend to prepare for a scene where his character had done just that, or had run around the block for a scene where he was supposed to be out of breath. Olivier was amazed at this behaviour; Hoffman asked how else it could be done. Olivier’s response: ‘Try acting, dear boy’.”

    Good luck with your novel.

  10. It sounds wonderful what you’re doing, and I certainly don’t buy the idea that men can’t write women, women can’t write men, white can’t write black, etc, etc. How reductive and limiting!

  11. If the only thing you are afraid of is the judgment of others, I say go for it. Take the risk of letting your imagination take you where it will.

  12. Lokesh, thanks for stopping by and thanks for that inspiring quote. I shall work on my acting.

    Dorothy, what’s amazing is that I’ve allowed myself to be limited by this for years. However, I’m experiencing new liberation right now and have just dreamed up a whole array of new characters who are neither white nor female like me.

    Thanks, Anna! I’m going to do just that …

  13. Good for you! I’ve always thought it was a little silly to assume writer should only write what they know. And I’ve always been with Lokesh: does anyone ever tell an actor he or she can’t act what he or she doesn’t know?

  14. It is an act of courage to use someone else’s voice to express your own, that’s for sure. I know it must be nerve-wracking and a bit harrowing because you want it to be perfect and not come across as ‘this must be what you feel, right?’. But at the same time, we have to open ourselves to other voices, ones we don’t ‘know’ as well, in order to make progress, both in ourselves and in the literary world. Go for it Charlotte. I have full confidence that you will do your black characters justice, and then some.

  15. I’m so happy you’ve come to this decision. I agree writing a novel is such a bold and fearless endeavor. If we were limit ourselves to writing what we know, well then we wouldn’t really be able to write about any other human being. Each person’s experience is uniquely their own. Even a black South African cannot have the same exact experience that another black South African. Besides, you are not trying to interpret one person’s experience, but rather, I imagine to tell many stories through one person.

    It’s liberating to realize that our imagination is limitless. This nothing impossible that you can imgaine. I was so intrigued by Lindiwe. I can’t wait to read more.

  16. Thanks for the tip about The Post-Birthday World – will keep an eye out for that later in the year.

  17. I find this whole ‘it’s too hard/difficult’ business interesting. Have we entirely lost our appetite for novels that tackle tough issues? We’ve come from Charles Dickens who certainly raised awareness of the less than jolly aspects of Victorian society to chick lit where the scariest thing you dare raise is a large glass of not very nice white wine….Search me. Mind you, we’re the generation that also tends to assume that there’s no group of extremists who couldn’t be converted to our way of thinking over a nice cup of coffee and an iced bun. Or by invading them, of course.

  18. You couldn’t write well if you weren’t able to imagine what it’s like to be someone other than yourself. There are no limits to what you can imagine, nor should there be.

    This is quite a different thing from the assumption of someone with a lot of power that they understand those over whom they have power and to whom they have never listened. A good writer never does that sort of thing because a good writer does everything in her power to listen and observe other people carefully.

  19. And another book to add to the list. This one’s been recommended to me so many times but I really shouldn’t put it off any longer…

    Making things up – could there be any other motive for writing fiction? Great you’re seizing such joy in this.

    I’ve always been baffled by “write what you know” – the stricture’s never seemed to apply to what seems to me to be the far greater gulfs than class and ethnicity – gender and our own subjectivity in the first place. The very act of answering someone’s most casual enquiry (let alone commenting on a death or some other horror they’ve experienced) requires such an act of imagination. And one could argue that Post-Colonialism or whatever you might call it becomes an act of appropriation in its own right when it uncritically seizes the centre ground in this way – marginalizing the experience of the Indian workers in the then British colonies in Africa, for example.

  20. I’ve never understood this idea of only writing what you know. If we all followed that advice there wouldn’t be no such genres as fantasy or science fiction. I write suspense/thrillers and hope and pray I never experience some of the things my characters do. Of course, anything factual and verifiable should be accurate. That could take some research. For example, I have a story I want to do which will involve cloning. I know nothing about it, so I’m reading a little be to make sure the few facts I’ll need for my story are correct. The rest will be a product of my imagination.

  21. I still can’t face reading We Need To Talk About Kevin, although it has come recommended by a few people with similar reading tastes to me. I think I’ll have to wait until I’m in the right frame of mind.

    I’m writing from the perspective of someone completely different from myself, and from a totally different background. I’ve had to do tons of research but it’s been so interesting. I find writing from her POV gets easier the more I get to know her as a character, and there are parts of her experience that of course I can relate to – her responses to fear, cold, anger etc.

    Will have to cut this short, a small person at my ankles is attempting to stick a live electrical cable in his mouth!!

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