Sunday, May 11, 2008

Write what you know ?

I'm sure you've heard the advice - to write what you know. But is it good advice? At the meeting we had to plan our screenwriting workshop, one of my fellow WriteGirls staunchly insisted that it is not - she said you should write what you WANT to know. Hmm.

I think to take the "write what you know" mantra too literally would be quite limiting indeed. We would have no science fiction, no surrealism, no tales of the past or the future.

But I do think that writing what you know can be a good place to start. The whole reason I started writing a pilot about a college radio station is that for my last TV writing class in college I wrote a pilot about law interns - basically Grey's Anatomy, but law. And I still think it's a good idea...but I quickly realized that I'm not David E Kelley, and I know nothing about law. It became a tortuous semester of research and the discovery that law interns do not have the same juicy involvement in cases the way medical interns do. So my structure of serial personal relationship dramas set against episodic cases did not work. I ended up writing 60 pages of well-developed characters doing very little. Maybe one day when I'm an Important Executive Producer I will revisit the project and hire lawyer-turned-writers to figure out the legal stuff for me.

So for my next pilot I said screw research, I'm going to write something I know completely: college radio. And though I'm still struggling with rewriting, it's kind of nice to write something I feel that I'm an expert about. In a way my challenge is that I have so many ideas, so many directions to go in, so many real-life experiences that I can pull from. If you're a beginning writer who's tackling structure and characters and dialogue for the first time, it might not be a bad idea to give yourself a break and write about something you already know a lot about. Plus, your unique perspective about growing up in your parents' hip hop clothing store in West Philly (like my new friend Kat) might be the exact thing that gets people talking about your fresh, unique voice. And you can always write that super-ambitious historical science fiction allegory next time.

That being said, please fight the urge to write a coming-of-age story about an aspiring writer searching for love and the meaning of life. :)

As for writing what you know...I think my official advice is to write the people you know, but put them in whatever jobs, situations, settings, time periods, etc. that you want. I see everyone as a potential character. Start in reality and then let your creativity take hold.


chiya said...

College radio sounds interesting. More interesting than lawyers. Maybe.

Anyway, you have some good advice there.

Unknown said...

And there's also the option not to take the "write what you know" advice so literally. It sounds obvious, but I finally started to find my voice when I wrote the emotional truths that I know - how it feels to be dumped, to pick yourself up after a career setback or whatever. So I'm researching settings, about which I know nothing, to write characters with emotional truths that I know only too well.

brenderlin said...

I started to write a comment, but it grew into a blog post.

VDOVault said...

I totally agree with your assessment that you shouldn't be writing a script on young lawyers (who are called *associates* in most law firms) or law *clerks* (don't call them *interns*...that's not the term of art in the legal profession). You need to do more homework on the topic especially if you pitch someone who knows the law and TV show production (like Michael Chernuchin a lawyer turned writer for example)

That said you don't necessarily need a lawyer who wants to be a writer to gain insight on law clerks go about their professional lives. You should go hang out at some of their online forums (that is what Google searches are for), read the 'so you want to be a lawyer or go to law school' books and get to be friendly with legal secretaries and paralegals and court reporters who will give you all kinds of dirt on lawyers. Or temp in a law firm office. Or go hang out at a law school (preferably with 2nd or 3rd year students or if they're night school students, they can be in their 4th year).

And if you're on a budget borrow those books from a library or spend a day hanging out in a bookstore that caters to law school students.

Your idea is not a bad one, you just need to do more research.

80-90% of the people I went to law school with were odious to hang around with but they would make interesting TV show characters. The other 10-20% are very likable (especially the ones pursuing their LLM degrees, it's like a masters degree in law and every one of those folks is usually already a working lawyer and serious about getting a more specialized education to generally improve themselves and their practice).

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I realize I'm over a year late on this post, but in a case of absolute serendipity, I stumbled across this wonderful blog and decided to start from the beginning, and have thus been binge-ing.

But my experience with the whole "write what you WANT to know" mantra has been quite rewarding. Having graduated with a degree in PoliSci, I had access to some very interesting viewpoints in terms of global economic forces, non-state actors and all that usual stuff.

But what it did was open a gate for me that enabled me to write "somewhat realistically" about arms dealers and terrorists and drug dealers. And now it's all I can write about.

So while I'm in your WriteGirls friend's corner, I'd add the caveat that the passion or interest has to be there. That way, it's something you WANT to know more about, something you WANT to research.

My two cents.

P.S. You've likely heard/read this a million times already (trust me I read the comments! I've been counting!), but your blog is lovely and incredible. Thank you for doing this.