Write what you know.
Solid advice. I mean, if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, writing about things you're knowledgable about is a good way to go. So writers, as they're writing, dig into the wells of their personal experience and they write what they know.
Unfortunately, in practice, this ends up with a lot of writers actually writing about what they know: writing.
Or, for that matter, filmmaking. Acting. Life on set or in the theatre. The secluded life of a novelist. The actor looking for their big break. Something arts related.
What we end up with is meta-art.
For the simplicity of this article, I’m going to focus on writing. Writers writing about writing.
You have a protagonist. But guess what? They want to be a writer. Their struggles are those of a writer. They need to publish their book, or sell their screenplay. They need inspiration. They have writers block. They want to write something, but lack the confidence. The entire plot is what the writer went through to make the story in the first place.
See? Writers write about what they know. They write about writing.
I’ve seen enough and . . . well, if I'm being completely honest, I’m kind of done watching movies, or reading stories, of this nature. There’s a few reasons for this.
IT'S NOT "THE DREAM"
I’m currently living the writers struggle. Consuming this art about my own life doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. Best case scenario, it's realistic, and I just watch the highs and lows of my own life play out on screen. Worst case, these writing stories have a "Hollywood ending" where the writer miraculously sells their manuscript in what can only be described as would never happen in real life. Sure, these endings are warm and fuzzy. But it's not real. What's more, these endings aren't actually written for me. Hollywood endings about writing were written for people who romanticise the writer's struggle. Best case or worst case, watching the writers life just doesn't do it for me.
I think it’s a fact that kids emulate what they see on TV. I fear we live in a time when writing is glamourised. Don't get me wrong—writing is a wonderful thing to do. It's a rewarding profession in its own way. It's also therapeutic, something people with something to say should do, and something incredibly worth being genuinely passionate about. But you know what? Encouraging kids to chase a Hollywood ending (RE: not real) isn't a good idea. You know why? Because we still live in a capitalist society where you need to make money to eat and put a roof over your head, something romanticising the writer's struggle seems to gloss over. Or, worse, present it in a way that makes poverty looks "quirky" or "bohemian" when in actuality poverty should be taken seriously.
If there were one or two movies, books, etc. about writers, I think it would be fine. But there’s just too many. Based on my Netflix's "recommended for me," roughly 50% of the population is trying to pursue a career in the arts. The last several remakes of Cinderella alone had dancers, singers, performers, etc. whose Prince Charming helped them get their big break. I highly doubt these many people are pursuing a career in the arts (or that Cinderella has to be an artist of some kind), but most likely exist because, again, writers write what they know.
Personally, I would much rather watch an inspirational sci fi movie than one about a writer who "lacks the confidence" to write their screenplay. Can we have some protagonists struggling to get into medical school? Or sit coms about retail workers? Or factory workers? You know, some different professions. I've seen my own life on screen enough—I'd like to see other professions, other people from other walks of life, and something new.
THERE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT
Look, I love the arts. As someone who's pursuing writing, I also believe in the validity of this profession. Unfortunately, when you have a movie about about a writer, it's usually a whiny person who just has to "believe in" themselves to succeed. That's not exactly accurate, or flattering. Writing about other—more important— things is what needs to be done. Just read the newspaper—there are no shortages of important things we should be incorporating into arts of all genres and mediums. Art has power, but I find that power gets diluted when we do meta-art. Or, when writers write about writing.
So there are a few reasons why I’m finished with writers writing about writing, and meta art in general. I myself fell into this trap when I was first starting out. Write what you know is usually good advice, unless all you know is how to be a writer. Then you need to know more so you can write about more.
Whenever someone asks me for feedback on a piece of writing where the protagonist is a writer, I encourage them to change it. Honestly, it's just not working for me.
Let’s just . . . well, let’s show the world as it actually is: with many people doing art, but less than 50% actually trying to make a career out of it. Let's address serious issues in our work, and create complex characters instead of whiny writers who just need to "believe in themselves." Let's make art powerful—let's stop writing about writing.