Faulty assumptions: Writing edition

Hello, coronaprisoners!

As I continue to plough through a meandering to-do list on lockdown, managing my complete absence of an attention span (the internet? ADHD? too much news? Who can say) by only spending 15 minutes on any given activity bar cooking and day walks and thus making incremental but continual progress on several projects simultaneously, I’ve run up against an interesting recurring problem in my writing projects!

Namely, despite the urging of long-ago mentors and the in fact very accurate truism, “write what you know” (which is often cited without the closing second clause, “and make sure you know plenty”, a piece of very helpful advice given to me by a short story author in my youth who told me to make an ass of myself more often so I’d have things to work with)… I find myself compelled to introduce elements, settings, and norms that I know nothing about from my own life, and indeed have an odd sense of necessity about providing this alienation in the works.

Which would be perfectly normal–what author doesn’t like to challenge themselves? What better way to expand one’s knowledge base than by making it an important part of a story to know, for example, the tensions between two different branches of the English church in the early twentieth century?–were it not for the fact that there’s also this strong sense that people reading should recognise and know that I am doing it, and therefore grasp for once and for all that I am not writing an autobiography.

Almost anyone who writes anything has had to deal with the assumption that there must be some character in the fiction who represents them in a straightforward kind of way; almost anyone who has written anything has had to deal with the assumption that any knowledge they have demonstrated in writing fiction must have been garnered through lived experience, or professional expertise. I have this futile, silly idea that sooner or later it will be possible to convince people that writers do this thing called research.

Research, for those who only ever do it on one specific subject area or never did any in their life, is when you either read a lot of things, watch a lot of things, or interview a lot of people who have first-hand knowledge of a lot of things; sometimes writers do what’s called passive research, which is just absorbing stories and experiences from people around them and drawing on these later to include elements in a project. Sometimes writers do what’s called blind research, which is just reading or watching whatever looks interesting, until the collision of knowledge and concepts creates a new idea that sticks.

The broader the base of these researches the better depth and confidence a writer’s work is likely to have! The key is shallow, often swiftly-acquired knowledge, which is not the same thing as professional expertise: and professional expertise, while extremely useful in an profession, is not always easily communicated well and interestingly to a lay audience. Just ask anyone who has spoken to both a scientist and a science communicator: they’re very, very different things.

Ideally, the average reader would forget the author is there altogether except when it comes to paying for the labour they’ve enjoyed and recommending the work to others! An author whose preferences and opinions are too highly visible in their work is… a performer, rather than a creator.

And on that note: has anyone else made any fundamental discoveries about their own thought processes while they’re on enforced seclusion?