The Daily Beast recently wrote an article about Empire, with a heavy emphasis on Empire’s co-creator, Danny Strong. In the interview, he said something really smart about writing:
“Maybe people are surprised,” he concedes, adding that he’s routinely asked how he’s able to write so believably about the world of hip-hop and black culture. “The real question is how can I write in any world?” he says. “Everything I write has nothing to do with me.”
Of course I think it is smart, because I agree completely. Danny Strong, white guy, writes a convincing girl (he was the screenwriter for the last in the Hunger Games films), and apparently writes relate-able, compelling characters that happen to come from a different racial composition. (One could also assume he’s not a criminal either.)
I might hurt some feelings here, but I think this is a big discriminator between the pros and those who are writing their way up to pro… The ability to write a character that isn’t a thinly-disguised version of you going through something that is more-or-less autobiographical with some of the details changed to make
you your main character look good. Hell, even the desire to move beyond the stricture “write what you know” is a great starting point. Don’t go crazy with it and try to describe the desk job of a nuclear physicist unless you’re willing to do the research to get the details right and can gut-check it with someone who knows better, but beyond that…
No, your writing doesn’t have to be bound by the color of your hair or the limits of your experience. Here’s another truth that is going to be unpopular: unless you’re a serious exception (and if you were a serious exception, you wouldn’t need me to tell you this) your life isn’t that interesting. Most tragedies that feel momentous to the person experiencing the tragedy are, in reality, a dime a dozen. I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know: you should have talked to me when I was going through my divorce. It was like someone had ripped both arms out, and I was sure that I was the only person in the whole world who hurt quite as much as I was hurting at that point in time. Grief makes us myopic and self-absorbed. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. How could I claim otherwise? The evidence is all here in this blog.
That being said, I know that my divorce, fictionalized or in a straightforward re-telling doesn’t make for a good novel. It was just two people doing the best they could and coming to terms with the fact that the best they could do wasn’t good enough. Sad, for sure, but no different than any other divorce. People live that shit, they don’t need to do it again in their recreational reading.
So here’s my advice to writers and aspiring writers: Take Mr. Strong’s lead. Write what you don’t know. Ground it in what you feel. The stronger the feeling, the stronger the writing. Be brave. Take chances. And get out of your skin.