The Sun & Anchor asks writers and editors about what goes on behind the scenes. Next up — Award winning writer (and Veteran Vintage Publicist) Ethan Rutherford on Bad Advice
Write what you know, write what you know. I’m not sure who first came up with that little nugget of wisdom, but it’s everywhere. It’s in the air. It gets passed around like a cold in writing workshops and “how to” books. And, if taken the wrong way, it’s just a terrible, destructive piece of advice, almost as misleading as “show don’t tell”.
Why? Because if taken the wrong way—which is what you do as a young writer, you take everything the wrong way (I still take things the wrong way, I can’t help it)—it’s the sort of set-in-solid-stone advice that will shut down your imagination before it even wakes up. This is fiction we’re talking about, the realm of boundless dramatic opportunity. Your characters can do anything you want them to do, anywhere you want them to do it. Your imagination is a muscle; so flex that mofo. Don’t give your emotional experience to a character just like you—you know, we know, where that leads: to someone, sitting at a desk, writing about what it was like to become a writer. That’s fine for non-fiction. But for fiction? A reader—or, I should say, this reader—wants to be flung far and transported; I want to immerse myself in the fully imagined lives of characters I’ve never—would never—encounter, in situations I would never find myself in. I want to be surprised at the recognition something shared between myself and these characters, linking us. And further away you are from that character’s experience, the more surprising that recognition is when it comes, and the harder it hits.
So if the goal of a story is to make the strange familiar, why not begin with the strange? Why not write what you don’t know, but are interested in exploring? John Gardener has written that a successful ending ought to be both surprising and inevitable. The problem with writing what you know is that, from the outset, you know how you are going to demystify the experience, and while you often stick an ending that’s inevitable, rarely is it surprising (to you, to the reader, to everyone). Set the stakes a little higher. Wade into a pool that you think might be just a little too deep. Let that story gallop ahead of you, so when you do, finally, lasso it, and bring it home to the Recognizable Corral, you’re not sure exactly how you’ve done it, and are just as amazed as everyone else.
ABOUT: Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Esopus, New York Tyrant, VERB, Faultline, American Short Fiction, Fiction on a Stick, and the Best American Short Stories 2009. His stories have received Special Mention in the 2009 and 2010 Pushcart Prize anthologies, and he is the recent recipient of a SASE/Jerome Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, as well as a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant. In 2009, he received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. He’s just finished a collection of short stories, and is at work on a novel. Click here to read some of his work.