You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.
The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.
But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”
That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.
It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”
It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.
So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!
In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.
That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.
So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.
I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.