A friend, the novelist Rosy Thornton, went to hear Sebastian Faulks talking, and reports thus:*
He said that the advice ‘write what you know’ is the worst advice given to anyone, ever. He says that when he talks to young writers he says, DON’T write about what you know. He tells them, write about the past, the future, other words, a Bohemian desert, the south pole - but absolutely not about what you know.
Now, I often get asked about 'Write what you know' at readings, because it's so very obvious that I don't. And as I've said before here, I see why it's said but I agree with Faulks (though for different reasons) that it's frequently un-fruitful advice. 'Write what you know' is good advice in that you can write tastes, textures, emotions, authentically: it develops your documentary capacity, as it were, and without the pressure to invent, you can concentrate on the accuracy and vividness of the writing. To that extent, it's the gold standard for good prose. It's bad advice in that most of us lead dull lives. Staying within the boundaries of a ploddingly literal definition of 'what you know' isn't going to help you grown and change as a writer, and certainly not to enlarge your imaginative capacity. As I'm finding with drawing, documentary and imagination are quite separate talents. But the other thing in Faulks's talk which Rosy questioned, I would question too:
he talked about Saul Bellow (as an example) and said that if you are a Jewish American with a family background in eastern Europe, then you somehow trail with you the scent of holocaust and Ellis Island and generations of struggle, so that you can write about an ordinary glove-maker from Newark and it has ‘grandeur’, as Faulks put it. But that if he himself tried to write in the same way about, say, a schoolteacher from Leicester, it wouldn’t have this same ‘grandeur’, the same resonance.
I'm really not sure about this, though it wouldn't be fair to dissect a conversational remark too ruthlessly. I'd defend the capacity of a really good writer to find grandeur in an ordinary life. It's not easy to do: it's probably much harder than finding grandeur in an extraordinary one, but surely the right eye, mind and pen can plant seeds of ordinary Leicester lives in the earth of fiction, and grow transcendance, courage, passion, love and beauty from it. (Actually, of course, you rarely meet the most ordinary person, at any length, without it turning out that there are some extraordinary things in their background: hence the fascination of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are series.) It's true that perhaps it's easier to find grandeur when the scruffy fiddliness of our common lives is stripped out by time (hist fic) or space (spec fic, foreign settings), or obscured by darkness, and the literalness of colour can be escaped by working in monochrome. It's also true that dramatic action needs obstacles, and great drama needs great obstacles: easy divorce, the end of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the mobile phone have forced many a novelist to scurry into new corners of the world and the human psyche.
The other thing which worries me - which I'm worrying away at - are two implications of Faulks's example. First, that some subjects are automatically grand. I was deeply moved, for example, by the wonderful film of Fugitive Pieces (and promptly put the book on the top of the TBR pile), but I do wonder if it's all too easy to use the Holocaust, say, or child abuse, or death, for a bit of instant gravitas; and most competition judges would agree with me. And second, that it's Bellow's own background which trails this grandeur through his fiction. Are those of us without that background not allowed to imagine our way into it? I don't think Faulks is arguing that no imaginative use of someone else's history is permissible (how could he be?), but this seems to me to run counter to his previous advice to write what you don't know. Indeed, it gives ammunition to the literal-minded philistines who can't cope with verisimilitude, but need to prove that fiction is 'real', before they can accord it any value. To me, the value of fiction is the exact opposite: that it's not real, that it's not a weaker, because less 'accurate', form of documentary, but rather an imaginative (re-)creation of possibilities. As Una in A Secret Alchemy discovers, fiction is 'An opium dream of the heart.' In Xanadu, in other words, did Kubla Khan...
*Rosy's an academic lawyer, by way of a day job, so we're both anxious to point out that this is her memory of a small part of Faulk's very interesting talk, not a verbatim account.