Write What You Know

There are many reasons a writer puts pen to paper. Some do it in hope of fame and fortune, others to show off how clever they are or make people laugh, others to scratch an itch or exorcise a demon, others just to pay the bills. I’d say there are as many reasons to write as there are writers, but I fear I would underestimate. But nearly everyone who seriously writes, who takes the time and effort to finish and polish stories — and especially novels — has something to say.

I know most of my readers aren’t writers, but I’d like you to perform the following thought exercise anyway. Think about the threat to your life that worries you most. Is there cancer in your family? Is your kid looking kinda tired lately? Are you nervous about being attacked by dogs when you’re out on your walk? Are you worried that someone might come into your workplace and start shooting? Whatever it is — and however realistic the fear, because I know fear isn’t always rational — keep that in mind. Kind of roll it around a bit, see if you have something to say about it.

Now, as the second part of this thought experiment, I’m going to tell you that you’re not allowed to talk about that fear. You might have something to say about it, but other people are worried about that thing too, and your talking about it makes them nervous. Or, to soften that, you’re only allowed to talk about it in ways other people approve of. Not everyone wants to have a frank discussion. Not everyone appreciates black humor or vivid descriptions of unpleasant things. And if you do talk about it in ways others disapprove of, the authorities might take you bodily away, your employers might disown you, and the media might make you out to be deranged and dangerous.

Does that bother you? Are you sitting there thinking, what’s the point of having freedom of the press if you can’t even talk about the things that worry you? Or are you tapping your feet and saying, “Yeah, I know you’re talking about Patrick McLaw, so spare me the theatrics”?

Anyway, yes I am talking about Patrick McLaw, the teacher who was placed in “mandatory medical evaluation” after it was discovered he had written two science fiction books involving large-scale school shootings, The Insurrectionist and Lillith’s Heir. [Edit: see update below] It seems to me that a teacher might have a few thoughts on the subjects of school shootings, might have something to say on the subject. Never mind that The Insurrectionist seems to be, according to its description, about the race to prevent a second shooting, the police and school board seem to have decided that a desire to write about a thing is equivalent to the desire to do a thing. They are punishing Mr. McLaw for writing about something that, presumably, he has great cause to have strong opinions about.

Other people have ably addressed the civil rights issues in this, and in any case I doubt most of the salient details are public. I’ll leave the subject to others with greater ability and information. I want to talk about this as a writer: in particular as someone who writes murder mysteries. Yup, I think and write about killing people and getting away with it. I entertain myself and others with stories about murderers who are only barely caught, sometimes only by luck, because being only barely caught makes the story more interesting and exciting.

This effort is not without consequence, of that I am morally certain. Copycats have lifted plots from the greats in my field, transferring them from the fiction reviews to the obituary page. Millions of people have read or watched thousands of murder mysteries over a hundred years. There is little doubt in my mind that real people have died because other people read an Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Dorothy Sayers novel and thought “I could do this, and then I’d be rid of that jerk next door and nobody would be the wiser.” It is possible (though, since I work in science fiction, unlikely) that someone will do the same with one of my murder plots.

I say this not out of pride nor out of shame, or because I think anything ought to be done about it, I say it because I think it to be true and because the truth is worth talking and thinking about. We write and read about poisonings, bludgeonings, shootings, stabbings, drownings, and all manner of terrible deaths. Murder is a crime that worries, fascinates, repulses, and even sometimes delights us (depending on who gets the wrong end of a particularly spectacular stick). It is entertainment, but it is more than that: it is a part of our culture’s way of dealing with mortality. It reminds us on the one hand that we and our loved ones too shall die, possibly by violence, but also reaffirms a shared belief that life is important and that violent death should be avenged.

This is not to say that art must have noble purpose, or any purpose at all. On the contrary, just as some people can learn the wrong lessons from anything, some people can be inspired to great things by anything, if only they are exposed to it. Even art with malicious or senseless intent can produce beauty and insight when observed by the right person. Even if the only aim and effect of art is enjoyment, well, enjoyment is important too.

They say to write what you know. Here’s what I know: Our civilization and our culture do not work when we are afraid to talk about the things that worry, fascinate, repulse, or delight us — even when the things that delight me, repulse you. Perhaps especially so. Among its other many virtues, fiction allows us to practice our own emotional reactions in a safe environment to disasters (and joys!) great and small; that requires a writer who is able and willing to write convincingly about those things. It is important, even vital, to be able to read about unpleasant and dangerous things if one so chooses; in which case it is just as important to be able to write and publish about unpleasant and dangerous things.


[Update: the LA Times is reporting that authorities in the case are saying that Mr. McLaw’s books have nothing to do with the current situation. That seems to be a contradiction to the original local reporting. It’s certainly plausible that a local reporter got things very wrong. In any case, much of what I said was in response to the reporting, which I felt implied that it was justified to take these actions over books like these, and in response to some comments on that reporting]

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