Saturday, July 4, 2009

Some Thoughts on Writing

One of the biggest problems I faced while writing was a lack of ideas. I just didn’t know what to write about. At that time, for me, “writing” meant fiction- novels or short stories. I hadn’t started reading any blogs then, so that was the only form of writing I was familiar with. I wanted to be like JK Rowling and Enid Blyton, and create worlds for readers like my favourite authors then had created for me. So while I knew that I wanted to write, I didn’t know what.

Then a friend gave me the link to his blog, and I became a regular reader. The links he’d posted on his blog led me to new blogs, and those blogs led me to more, and suddenly, a whole new world of writing opened up to me- a world where people wrote about their thoughts and ideas, their observations and everyday lives, as well as fiction. That’s when I realised that a lot of what I write can, and maybe should be about what I know, even if it is fiction. I cannot write a story about a girl living in Nigeria, or a poor child living in a slum, because I don’t know much about life in Nigeria or a slum. Anything that I might write about it will be improbable and maybe even implausible.

Not that this epiphany helped me suddenly overflow with ideas. Even after I deicded to write about myself and my thoughts and observations, even after I started my first blog, I had no idea what to write about. My blog lay untouched for days on end: I just didn’t know what to post about! Why would people want to read about my life and my thoughts? Then I decided to stop thinking about what people want to read, and just write. But I still didn’t have too many ideas.

In the past few weeks, however, this seems to have changed. Ideas are coming running at me, many times just before I sleep, so I keep a pad next to my bed and groggily jot down some words to help me remember the idea the next day. I’m seeing things to write about everywhere, from a trip to the mall to a conversation with a friend. And I really, really hope this lasts.


Anonymous said...

This isn't a problem that one should dismiss out of hand. What should I write about? Why is it worth writing about? Both these are important questions; though perhaps there is no one right answer -- each writer needs to find his/her. Yes, there may not be any point in writing a story about a Nigerian child but is there any point about writing a STORY about your visit to the mall? Is there any reason why it needs to fictionalised? Also, is there any reason to write about it at all? I am, of course, talking of writing as art; one needn't hesitate to tell one's friends about one's trip to the mall.

That doesn't mean you stop writing (though some writers might have done that) but it does mean that you go back to what you have written and question yourself: why have I written this? And why should I write it like this and not like that?

Aishwarya said...

I'm not sure if "write what you know" is necessarily a great idea - if you take it to extremes you'll spend your life writing about a young Indian girl living in Singapore, and that may not always be particularly interesting. There's nothing wrong with writing about a young Nigerian girl - provided, of course, that you can be bothered to do the research, write responsibly, and are willing to take criticism from actual Nigerian girls if you screw up horribly.

But I'm a fantasy and science fiction fan, and if writers restricted themselves to what they knew my genre would fall apart.

V said...

I think it comes down to a choice: Who do you write for? Your readers or for yourself? Because if it's for your readers, then you can't write about anything and everything you want. Your out to please them, so choose something that interests you, and make it interesting for them. But on the other hand if it's for yourself that you write, then what you write doesn't matter...

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the sentiment. If one is to be honest with the subject of one's writing, one must have first hand knowledge of it. Research is a very poor substitute in my opinion

Sumedha said...

@Anon: I haven't started thinking of writing as an art yet. At least, not all writing. And not the writing that I do. For me, it's one way I can express myself, talk about something that's on my mind. So, I don't think too much about the reason why I should or should not write about something: I write about a trip to a mall because for me, writing about it is similar to telling a friend about it, the difference is that no one else is involved in the process.

I'm not sure I explained myself well, in this comment, or in the post. :)

@Aishwarya: You're right.. taking "write what you know" to an extreme will probably get boring, both for me and a reader. And you're right again: if I'm ready to do my research and willing to take criticism, writing about something I don't know can be done. But I think that research can probably not substitute for experience. So, instead of writing only about something I know, I could come to a compromise and write about things sort of based on things I know, and not just out of the blue.

You know, I'd thought about fantasy and sci-fi when I wrote this post. Sci-fi and fantasy have the advantage of not having a reality to be compared to: it can pretty much go where it wants, right? There are fewer rules, fewer chances of being called out for writing something "wrong". And implausability is part of sci-fi and fantasy, nahin?

@V: You're right there, it does come down to why I'm writing. Right now, I'm trying my best to write for myself, to find a way to express something I'm thinking about. But if I publish something I write to an open blog, the fact that someone's reading it is always going to be there at the back of my mind. So I guess writing will have to be a compromise between what I want and what a reader may want.

@Anon2: Research cannot be a very good complete substitute for experience, yes. But as Aishwarya said above, if the writer does their research well and is willing to accept criticism, it's okay to write about something you don't know. Though right now, I'm trying to write about things I do know, my own thoughts and experiences, so writing is easier for me. :)

Aishwarya said...

And fittingly, I just found this, from Ursula LeGuin (who is one of the best writers I know of):

As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”

Aishwarya said...

As for SFF being "implausible" it depends what you mean by plausibility. I mean, even if I make all my characters blue skinned and three legged, readers might not relate to them unless the way they relate to each other makes sense/is internally consistent. SFF writers can't just keep randomly making shit up to suit the story - it needs to all fall into a pattern of some sort. And since a lot of the best-loved, most important work in these genres is actually a critical comment on our world, these books can sometimes have an even greater responsibility to the real world than some "realist" novel about college or romance or whatever.

[Rant ended. Can you tell I'll defend my genre to the death? ;)]

Sumedha said...

@Aishwarya: I like the quote. :) She's right... the "rule" does need a good definition of know. And about SFF, I guess you're right. It's not all "implausible", and yes, the readers definitely have to relate to the characters, so writers can't just make up whatever they feel like.

That was an example of me writing about something I don't know at all (my only experiences with fantasy are Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl) and with no research, so I apologise if I was wrong. :)