Friday, 18 November 2011

"Write what you know about.."

is the advice I was constantly given as a child. It was almost as if I was not supposed to use my imagination. I was just supposed to describe the world around me.
My "daily diary", that daily sentence I was supposed to come up with each school day for the first two years, was supposed to tell about something I had done, was doing, or was going to do. I was in constant trouble for wanting to use words that were considered to be "too hard".
"But I can spell it!" I would protest. "I know what it means!"
I was supposed to use "red" not "scarlet" and "think" instead of "contemplate". I am not sure where I found the alternative words. I assume I was reading them. I read a lot. I had worked my way through all the books in the "infants" section in no time at all. I still read a lot. I do not use quite so many fancy words.
But, I am still being told "write what you know about". I do not write science fiction. Perhaps I write "historical" fiction - of a sort. The book I am currently working on is set in 1970's Australia but the young hero is due to return to England within weeks. The previous book was set in Australia and France.
It is the previous book which caused the comment. It has just been handed back to me with the words, "I liked it very, very much indeed but you should write what you know about. There is no point in writing about France. You need to write just about Australia.."
The reader was a bookseller. She had asked to see the book because a mutual friend had told her I was writing it. As she has contacts in the publishing world I, with some misgivings, passed it over. I know she is very keen on Australiana, almost to the exclusion of other things.
"Why?" I asked, "Nobody tells Barry Maitland to set Brock and Kolla in Sydney instead of London." (She once met Barry Maitland at some function and likes to tell people she has.)
"That's different. He's already published. If you want to get published then write about what you know. What you know about is Australia. People will expect you to write about Australia."
What? I am to be confined to writing about Australia because I live here? I have to start out writing about Australia before I am allowed to "graduate" to other things? I spent seven years living in London as a student. I am not allowed to write about that?
People who do not live in Australia may think it is exotic and romantic but the reality is that everyday life in Clapham or Malvern or Largs (we have all three here) is much the same whether you live in Adelaide or the United Kingdom. The weather is different but, if you are child, you still eat breakfast, go to school and get told off for leaving your footy boots where your mother trips over them - and the place where you are most likely to see a kangaroo is at the zoo or wildlife park.
Anyone who knows me will know that I am not a passionate Australian. I happen to have been born here. My nationality is an accident of birth, nothing more.
So yes, I will write what I know about but it might be that the house will be in another place and indeed it may need to be in another place. Does that shock you?


widdershins said...

I always thought the concept of writing what you know about included all the things you knew about and all the things you were prepared to find out about ... it was called research and imagination.

Imagine my surprise when I realised how pedantically (is that a word?) some folk interpreted that wonderful phrase.

Nicole MacDonald said...

I write what I know... I just put it in a fantasy setting ;p and then create a little here and there *grin*

Anonymous said...

I have wondered about this from an "artistic" point of view.

Would it be culturally insensitive for me to make painting similar to Aboriginal dot paintings? Carvings similar to Maori ones? Paintings in the style of Constable?

I have lived in NZ, Oz, UK but am not Aboriginal, Maori, or English.

I believe I could incorporate aspects from everywhere I have lived and the art I have seen (difficult not to!).

However, I think some people would say I must not use anything I do not have a blood relationship to.

I think ALL my experiences contribute to who I am, and I should be able to reflect this in what I do.


catdownunder said...

Ah research and imagination have to go together Widdershins - or how would you know what to research? And I like your idea of creativity Nicole!
LMcC - I started trying to answer you in the next post - not sure I have managed to get very far!