My Macabre Mentor

After Ray Bradbury died, I wrote a blog for my personal website about how I have never had a real mentor when it comes to writing. My original writing instructors were too early in my development to be much of a use as serious mentors. My peers in the community are generally around the same level as writers. As such, I have gotten advice about particular bits of particular stories, but not so much about writing in general.

Most of the advice I have gotten about writing has been gleaned from quotes and books from famous authors. I read a lot of writing books. I read a lot of essays. I read internet blogs, forums, commentaries, and anything else I can find on the craft of writing. That has been my writing education. That is why people like Bradbury are so important to me.

As such, it is difficult to come to a decision regarding the best and worst advice I have received. I will have to go with the best and worst tips I have come across.

In some ways, I am torn by writing influences. I am heavily influenced by classics and literary fiction. However, the horror genre has also been a big influence on me. Stephen King gets a bad rap as a writer. If you haven’t read On Writing, there is no time like the present. King has a great blue collar work ethic behind his writing that really speaks to me. Look at the numbers.  King has written forty-nine novels, nine short story collections, and five non-fiction books since 1973.  That is an amazing amount of work output. He hasn’t needed the money in decades. He must work because he loves it. I think some of his work is underrated because it is popular and there is so much of it.

On Writing has a lot of great advice, but my favorite is “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”  There have been a lot of quotes along that same line. Many books and authors talk about writing every day. If you distill it, the most important thing is to keep writing. Write regularly, read voraciously. If you read and write you will become a better writer. King’s quote gives you permission to just get on with it. I don’t wait for ideas or inspiration. When it is time to write, I just go do it.

The worst writing advice I have heard, and possibly one of the most common pieces of advice is “Write what you know.” What a load of crap. Whoever originally came up with that ought to be dragged behind the shed. If you only write what you know, you are going to have a short, boring career.  I have never killed anyone. I’ve never died. I would like to think I have never been crazy. Still, I have managed to write pretty well about doing all of those things. If you think you can’t write about a world you don’t know, I would like to remind you that Memoirs of a Geisha was written by Arthur Golden, who was a 41 year old white male from Georgia.

You don’t need to know it. You need to be able to research it well enough for your writing to feel real, even if it isn’t.  You need to have an ear for authenticity. By all means, use settings, characters, and situations that are close to you, but don’t limit yourself to just those things. This is the information age; you can research anything. Write what you can learn.

Perhaps my view on writing what you know relates to my best advice. Don’t wait for your life to inspire you. Get to work. Learn something. Inspire yourself.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

7 Comments

  • I agree with your stance on “write what you know.” I’ve never really understood that as writing advice. I’ve been meaning to read On Writing for awhile. Sounds like I need to get to it!

    • I always thought it seemed like a crutch for when you first start writing, but it makes no sense when you think of writing as a career or an art. Painters aren’t limited to what they know. Musicians experiment with new sounds. Trades all over the world learn new skills rather than settle for the same old thing. Why should writing be any different?

  • Jason Arnett says:

    Yes you do. Right now.

    Great post, Jack.

  • I think the Write what You Know thing is misconstrued often, and never explored like perhaps it was originally intended. I think when it was coined, the intended takeaway was something like, what interests you; basically, make sure you are passionate about whatever you write. Therefore, the advice should be, “write what interests you.” Chances are, if you are interested in something, you probably know a lot about it. Therefore, the “write what you know (about)” advice.

    After all, we’ve all read that book that reads obviously like it was meant to meet a deadline, and wasn’t really spawned from passion (ahem…Palahniuk’s Haunted..ahem).

    • I think my favorite phrasing of the term, the one I closes agree to is from John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. He said write what you know should really be write what you like. If you like horror, write horror. If you like mysteries, write mysteries. Like you said, write something you have a passion for, because you can’t fake it and make it worthwhile.

  • Emily says:

    As Charlie Sheen says, this article is “WNNIING!”

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