On writing what you know

I was watching the latest Californication episode last night and, although the show is usually absurd verging on obscene, this particular installment raised a few interesting questions, the most prominent being: is the creation of art possible without substance abuse, and everything that comes along with it?

Becca, Hank Moody’s daughter, decides to become an author and so drops out of college, and embarks on a drug-, alcohol- and sex-fuelled adventure in order to ‘taste everything’ and have experiences. Her parents, naturally concerned, try to dissuade her from pursuing this, despite the fact that throughout her life they have been the worst possible role models, drug and alcohol abuse being only one aspect of this family’s erratic lifeline. In fact, fleeting glimpses of a kind of twisted love have been the only positive notes in this constantly shit-faced sonata. The kid has seen it all.

In a desperate attempt to show her the true face of drug abuse and what it can lead to, they take her to the house of a rock star with whom Hank is currently collaborating. There, they find him in his ‘normal’ inebriated state joined by his good friend Marilyn Manson, who is seen snorting cocaine as they enter the premises. Becca, at first, finds the entire situation “so cool” and seems fascinated by their utterly laisser-faire attitude. After a few minutes, the parents’ plan seems to be blowing up in their faces, and so Hank decides to leave his daughter there alone hoping that she will soon understand that this is not all it’s cracked up to be. Indeed, Becca comes out a while later urging them to leave quickly. When they arrive home she tells them that she gets it, these guys are lunatics, that she will not end up like them and that they will have to trust her, as they have done until now. By the end of the episode, Becca is seen handing her father her first finished manuscript, while he professes his love once again, reminds her how proud he is, and how big of an acconplishment this is.

There are several questions being raised here, such as: was she able to write her novel because of the experiences she had? would she not have been able to do so otherwise? does the actual story have anything to do with drugs, alcohol or sex, or is this irrelevant?

As a 30-year-old aspiring writer who has never had a substance abuse of any kind I must now (based on this premise) ask myself two questions: have I been unable to complete a manuscript until now because of my serious lack of “experiences” and is it too late to start now?

All this is, of course, in jest.

Regardless, however, of my unwillingness to become an addict in the faint hope of awakening the inebriated genius within me, this is an argument, an issue, and an unanswered question, that has been creeping its way through several media outlets and cultural references for decades. Wasn’t it Hemingway who famously said ‘Write drunk; edit sober’?

Is that what they secretly mean when they say ‘write what you know’? Are they urging you to go out there and get to ‘know’ stuff to write about? Are you doomed to be a boring writer if you don’t? Or worse, will you be unable to even become a writer in the absence of excess?

No, I refuse to believe that.

Well, I kind of have to, don’t I?

Obviously, one can argue for or against this idea, presenting valid and sound arguments pertaining to either the possibly creative benefits of allowing yourself to experience consciousness-altering substances, or the premise that creativity and imagination do not depend on or presuppose an intoxicated mind. History, in fact, has shown both to be true.  

And so I proceed, soberly fumbling through the things I know, and somewhat tipsily through the ones I don’t.  

One thought on “On writing what you know

  1. Love this! And I do not agree with the substance abuse aspect of inspiration. The person you are defines the kind of writer you become, if a person uses addiction as a means to fuel his or her work, that is entirely a personal choice.

    Besides, if “write what you know” were an absolute truth, there would be no crime, fantasy and science-fiction writers. Writing is about discovering the truth, whichever way that is possible. To some that means drug abuse, to others just generous amounts of coffee 🙂


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