Writing About What You Know

One of the first pieces of writing advice you ever hear is “write what you know”. This is valuable, if imprecise wisdom. It means both “write about that with which you are familiar” and “do your research to learn about the rest”.

As a young writer, I always felt a little hamstrung by this advice, because what I knew seemed so ordinary. Douglas Coupland was an author who delivered me from the fear of writing about my utterly ordinary life. After all, what was more familiar and ordinary to a middle-class Vancouver kid than Generation X and Shampoo Planet?

I don’t write fiction or drama all that often–I find it very difficult, and I’m lazy–but I still take reassurance when I read great writers writing about the ordinary. This winter I read Joseph O’Neil’s extraordinary Netherland, the best novel I’ve read in years. I just heard an interview (meh, RealAudio on that page, but here’s a link to an MP3 version) with him, and was struck by how similar his own life is to that of his protagonist in Netherland. They both grew up in Holland, they both love cricket, they both lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel and so forth. If O’Neil can write a masterpiece built on such familiar plots and premises, then there’s probably hope for the rest of us.

I should mention that I took my own advice back in 2006 when I wrote a play called Bolloxed (I gave up the domain a while back, and the squatting page there now is very odd). It was about a Canadian software developer living in Ireland.

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