Confessions of a Memorial Day speechwriter

Joss Whedon and writing what you know

I was always a voracious reader and as I got older, I began imagine myself as an author.  The problem that confronted me was trying to figure out what to write.  I was good with short fiction and research papers, but beyond that I was at a loss.

I don't remember when I first heard the phrase "write what you know," but applying it helped me to move forward.  I've also taken an interest in the biographies of authors I admire to see how their experiences shaped their writing.

A big influence in this sense is Stephen King's "On Writing."  I was told that the first half of the book - which is largely autobiographical - isn't as useful as the second.  I found the opposite.  The second half is great if you want to learn how to write like Stephen King, which I absolutely do not.  Instead, I found a lot of insight in how he came to focus on the horror genre.  He had a rough and unhappy upbringing and so he wrote what he knew.

The same is true of other authors, of course.  Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" contains such vivid descriptions of the Italian Front because he was there.  This also works in the realm of fantasy.  JRR Tolkien's wartime service unquestionably shaped his vision of evil and his descriptions of Mordor and the Dead Marshes - just as much as his linguistic and historical knowledge created his iconic visions of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits.

There's another area of knowledge for authors, though, and that's relationship experiences, which is what I want to talk about here. 

Back when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was on TV, I couldn't help but notice that none of the relationships in the series went well.  It didn't matter what the context, they all went south.

Okay, it was a show about angsty teenagers, but the spin-off went the same way.  So did "Firefly," both on the show and in the subsequent movie.

Now I get the value of having drama and working long-term relationships can be awfully dull, but there is some use in having a stable romantic relationship as a baseline which can operate in contrast to the other tormented ones.  Whedon never did this, and I always wondered why.

Subsequently we learned that his relationship with his wife was rather difficult.  Not only that, but apparently he had a casting couch and used it frequently.  Setting aside his blatant hypocrisy in claiming to be a feminist while exploiting his talent sexual gain and degrading his long-suffering wife, I think this is the key to understanding why the relationships in his work ended up the way they did.

Put simply, he didn't know what a good relationship looked like and apparently couldn't imagine one, either.  When he did have one (in "Firefly") he killed off one of the characters.  Even happiness became unhappy.

"Man of Destiny" has a number of romances, some of which end well, and some don't.  In that respect, I think I did a better job than Whedon (and certainly my personal life is better).

Of course, Joss Whedon exceeded my entire sales with a single night's audience of any of his shows, so who am I to boast, right?

In my own defense, Whedon did have the advantage of being third-generation Hollywood.  I'm pretty sure I'd have an easier time getting discovered if my father and grandfather were well-known authors.

Getting back to the point, I find it fascinating that someone who was otherwise imaginative and well-rounded had this blind spot. 

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