Writing Secrets: The problem with the holy trinity of writing advice

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

If you’ve been trying to write, you will no doubt have been challenged to adhere to the holy trinity of writing advice: write what you know, find your voice and show rather than tell.

The first two are rather hazy pieces of advice. What is your voice, after all, and how do you find it? And if you can only write what you know, where does that leave you? What do you know well enough to write, after all?

Showing rather than telling is less hazy in that it relates to craft. It remains good advice. It is the way to immerse your reader in the work, and allow them to experience events as your characters do, drawing their own conclusions.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest there is no place for “telling”. Telling can be lyrical, funny, interesting. Telling can carry us over the boring aspects of life without a jarring leap.

But I think that most of us recognise that, in order to inject drama into a scene and immerse your reader in the moment, showing is more effective than telling. After all, you don’t want to tell your readers of pathos and heartache, you want them to feel it for themselves.

The trouble with exhorting writers to develop a strong voice, though, is that, as soon as they want it badly, they become self-conscious. They begin to perform for those whose good opinion they desire.

I found this conundrum set out in a New York Times review of two satirical novels, both set in MFA programmes, by Hermione Hoby.

There is, however, no great and infallible arbiter of literary merit. The longing to be anointed, once and for all, as “the real deal” is a fundamentally hopeless desire. Moreover, such longing for external approbation might be the very thing stymieing a young writer from becoming what they need to be, since… both “knowledge” and “voice” can only be discovered for oneself, not bestowed from beyond.

What is required is a sort of faith in uncertainty—an acceptance that one’s capacity to conjure authentic new realities will have to be tested again and again, that the writer must be in a constant state of becoming.

She finishes by suggesting that a famous question posed by Kant might serve as “a useful counterpart to the MFA’s first dictum. Not “Write what you know” but, with its honest combination of curiosity and humility, “What can I know? “

So, who knows what constitutes a good, strong voice – except that we know it when we see it. It strikes a chord, it rings true, it connects with us, heart to heart, mind to mind.

We at All About Writing encourage a few techniques we believe can assist in the development of an unself-conscious style, unique to you. It’s not something you can teach, though. It’s a quality that develops through writing – a lot – and, strangely, reading other writers.

In terms of “knowing what you write”, let’s rather say that it makes your job slightly easier. If you’re writing about what you don’t know, take advice from the world of journalism. Every day as a journalist, I was called upon to write on a subject about which I may or may not have had prior knowledge. (In my first job on a small newspaper, I once was called upon to write the fishing column when the columnist was in hospital – I’ve never baited a hook in my life.)

The trick is to research and research until you do know it backwards. Talk to people, talk some more, read books, read articles, go to places you haven’t been before. Make yourself knowledgeable. You need to understand how to pan for diamonds in a river digging community, or what it takes to become a priest.

I once persuaded someone teach me to make a pamphlet bomb, so that I could write about it authentically. You need to be able to slip into another’s life, and only you know when you’ve done that well enough to have people ask: So when were you in the Red Brigade?

The trouble with abjuring writers to write only what they know is that it could sound as though you’re encouraging dogmatism. On the contrary, I believe that no writer has special access to “truth”. As soon as you start banging a drum for an issue, that’s when your writing will fail.

And yes, I agree, what can we ever truly know? Our role, I believe, is to explore life, with humility. Are we not, all of us, simply seeking after truth?

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The writer as God, the world-builder

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