Jeffrey Archer School of Writing Part 1: Write what you know about

A few days ago I took part in an online book club, where the guest of the day was none less than Jeffrey Archer, an author of some fame and renown, as well as a man followed by controversy, corruption and perjury scandals. Firstly, I would like to say what an unexpectedly warm breath of humanity Jeffrey proved to be. He was brilliantly entertaining throughout, his sense of comedy and situational humour was great, he came across as a skilled raconteur and conversationalist. He gave the book club host, who happened to be my son, a seemingly hard time, but after an initial shock of how abrupt Jeffrey was with my baby boy, who incidentally turned 27 on the day, I quickly realised that it was all done in the spirit of friendly banter in anticipation of fast approaching season of good will to all mankind.  

Jeffrey took questions from the audience for an hour, and did his best to answer them all at length, no matter how disjointed and random some of them were. Answering one of the questions, about the key to his literary success, he said, ‘write about what you know’. Nothing ground-breaking here, this piece of advice gets bandied about with such other pearls of writing wisdom as ‘make sure you do your research’ and ‘avoid dangling participles’ at every creative writing course in the land. And yet, somehow, for whatever reason, these cliched words sounded more profound to me than they would have done, had they not been spoken during my son’s book club, and had I not been, in fact, a great fan of Jeffrey’s storytelling for decades. The truth is, I read all his novels and short stories, some of them more than once. His books have accompanied me at many Mediterranean beaches over the years, so whatever the reason, the ‘write about what you know’ stayed with me, and I have been mulling over them since Thursday evening.  

It is easy for Jeffrey to follow his own advice and write about what he knows, because as far as I know, the things he knows read like a table of contents of a great novel, before he commits a single word to paper. He knows about being a long-term politician, winning an election to become an MP at an early age, becoming a deputy party chairman, being declared bankrupt, running for the post of the mayor of London, being a defendant in not one but two high profile trials, as well as working as an amateur auctioneer, and serving a long prison sentence.

What do I know about? An attempt to answer this question did not make for a comfortable journey of self-discovery. After some seriously intense navel gazing, head scratching and knuckle-cracking, I came to a painful realisation that, contrasted with Jeffrey’s capacious expertise, what I know about amounts to very little. What’s worse, none of it is of any significance or the slightest interest to anybody outside my closest family and friends, and even they tend to switch off half way through most of my stories, and then there are some stories which sound exciting to me and me alone, so I spare anybody else the agonising torture of listening to them.

Every time I think that I know quite a bit about something, I quickly discover there are people who know much more about it and in much more depth. Which means, the only thing I can safely say is that I know a little about a lot of things. I know a little about travelling, but much less than a lot of other people who know seriously huge amount about travelling. I know a little about film, but much less than a lot of people who know much more about film. I know a little about musical theatre, but, yep, you guessed it. There are people who can converse for hours about nuanced differences between Alfie Boe and John Owen-Jones performances as Jean Valjean, and which role was Lea Salonga most suited for during her career, and why, and this leaves me looking like an amateur, who likes to listen to a nicely delivered tune.

I know a few practical everyday things, which are not a good writing material. I know how to do gentle yoga, how to tidy the kitchen, soft-boil and egg, and how to ice-skate, none of them very well, mind you.

One thing I know quite a lot about, if I am not being unnecessarily modest, is court interpreting, and the intricacies of criminal and family law proceedings. The trouble is, I already wrote a book about it, and despite my best spamming efforts on Facebook and LinkedIn, it didn’t make a bestseller list and no movie deals were forthcoming, even though I still believe that Helena Bonham Carter would make the role of an intrepid Polish interpreter her best yet.  

The thing I know most about is children. My own children are the best thing that ever happened and keeps happening to me. Other people’s children are a different story, and on the whole they are greatly overrated. I also know that as soon as you give birth to three children, you will not have a dull moment for the rest of your life, or at the very least for the first twenty five years of their lives.

Impromptu conversations with teenagers are among life’s most precious moments, the perfect gems of absurdity and nonsense. Every parent goes through a multitude of such exchanges every week. This one took place about an hour ago.

– What are you watching?
– You don’t want to know. 
– I do want to know. 
– ‘Love hard’ 
– You were right, I didn’t want to know. 
– I did warn you, and now you know it, you cannot unknow it. Next time, take my word for it. 
– I’ll do my best.

This concludes part one of my Jeffrey Archer school of writing blog piece. I should probably check the copyrights issues with his agent before I come back with part two, so please do not hold your breath. I am a little concerned that what I am doing here might be akin to making the film, Being John Malkovich, without checking with John Malkovich, only on a such infinitesimally smaller scale as to become not comparable at all. 

One thought on “Jeffrey Archer School of Writing Part 1: Write what you know about

  1. But you do know something that nobody else does, and that’s how you see things through your eyes. Sure, we might look at a teenager and say the same word—teen—but perhaps you see someone’s daughter, a wise-ass, someone who once stole your money, a source of inspiration.

    So yeah, you don’t need to be knowledgable in something to write what you know, because in the end, you do know a whole lot that I don’t.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, Ania!


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