Why Writing Is More Than Just ‘What You Know’

Back in 2013, I interviewed multi-hyphenate Amy York Rubin about her series Little HorriblesNearly three years later, Amy and I spoke again about her new IFC Comedy Crib contribution, Boxed In. As you’ll see below, we got into some deep thoughts about the craft and I say unbearable things, so, you should read it, if only to mock me should we cross paths one day. When you can no longer stomach my pontificating, feel free to scroll down a bit to check out Rubin’s very worthwhile series in which she pushes her creative limits in an effort to explore the ground beyond the effective, but limiting, “Write what you know” adage.

You have a very defined voice and a strong allegiance to the “Write what you know” philosophy. Can you talk a little bit about your tone? 

I don’t know if I even do have an allegiance to the “write what you know” philosophy, it’s just what I do. It’s less a philosophy I abide by and more just something I do, not to put myself down or anything like that. I don’t think of myself as a writer’s writer, but I think I use writing as a method for, like, inappropriately processing things sometimes. Everything comes from a place of emotional experience, and then the story builds from that.  That seems to be what works for me. What I enjoy doing is making stuff I feel connected to and that’s kind of where it comes from. With [Boxed In], I tried to push myself to not just do [the same old thing]. I tried to do things a little bit broader and a little sketchier, a little different stylistically. I tried to push myself a little and test my boundaries.

I think there’s some beauty in the idea of a therapeutic value in writing.  That’s where the best writing comes from a lot of the time. 

Maybe. I think it’s a very fine line being really self involved and processing and writing and vomiting up self-loathing. That to me is different from writing from an emotional place. I try to always start from some kind of emotional nugget and even though the stories may not necessarily be true, the feeling behind it is. The difference is you’re looking outward more than you’re looking inward. Sometimes when I watch stuff that is very self involved, I notice that as a difference. I think the best writing starts from a place of emotion but then becomes about looking outward. I try to do that.

Sometimes when I feel shitty because something happened to me, I have to remember that’s not what I write about, that’s just what I should use to start the idea. Like, say you get dumped or someone rejects you, that’s the place that kicks me off to write a scene but I’m not investigating why that happened and how that other person did that. I think that’s the kind of stuff you want to avoid.

You’re limiting yourself if it’s just about you, because then your experiences have to be incredibly relatable and interesting to everybody, which is tough to nail. It’s probably smarter to write other people’s experiences through the lens of your own because then you’re dealing with all of society instead of just saying, “Oh, this thing only happened to me.”

The other end of the spectrum is you throw out premises or ideas that could happen to someone and you just vamp or riff off it, and that’s a kind of writing I’ve never really done but I’ve sort of dipped my toe into and am trying to broaden myself to try and do something like that. I always feel like if it doesn’t have an emotional core that I can connect to then I don’t really care.

Right, that’s the other side of the spectrum. If you have that on one side and someone who is completely self-indulgent on the other, you’re trying to fit in the middle.

When I see stuff that’s obviously a joke or obviously a plot I sort of feel like “Eh.” Unless it’s so well done, I can never really get into it. And I have so much trouble writing that way. It’s something I’ve tried to push myself to be a little better with.

I think that’s a major difference between writing for hire and writing for yourself. That said, the idea of riffing and creating a world on demand is something writers need to be adept at. In that case, it’s just very much like “Cool, I’m being hired to do this thing. Let’s get to work.” It’s a different mindset.

I’ve also found that it’s much easier for me to do that kind of style and be a little less connected to it if I’m also directing it. Just the idea of caring so much about what’s on the page and thinking this is a really great script vs. writing to make something and being like “I know exactly how I’m going to make this and, once I do, it’s going to be great.” I think that requires two different kinds of brains and ways of working. I worked on stuff a lot before with like MFAs or writer’s writers and they just care about their stuff, whereas I care more about the thing that I want to make. I think that gives me more flexibility and keeps me from going internal, because you can picture something a million ways rather than it just being one story or concept or scene.

What do MFAs care about?

Obvious stuff like act structure, “Do we care enough about this person in the story, and is their enough conflict?” That kind of structure-y, “Was it a good story?” kind of thinking, which I have used before and have felt like did help. Other times, though, I’m like “I don’t fucking care if there’s enough stakes there or if the act is too long.” Lots of times things that I like don’t have any story at all. I just like watching the characters. I don’t want to get too attached to those sorts of things and I think some people really believe in that.

Do you think that, as a professional filmmaker in Hollywood, those structural elements are important?

I think it depends on what you want to do. They can be important if you’re trying to sell a big script. It depends on what you’re trying to sell and what you’re trying to make. For me, they’re less important because my goals are more to make something that I really like, but then there are sometimes where I probably should value them a little bit more because it does help communicate to other people what I’m trying to present and puts it in a cleaner box. It’s a balance, I guess. There probably still is a point to be made that even something non-traditional still has that kind of level of structure to it. I think there are things that don’t have structure and still work. Like, I wrote this thing a couple years ago and I felt like it was really messy but, then, later, I was rewriting it and made it more structured and, when I revisited it, I basically went back to what I had in the first place. I think you have to know about it and push yourself and know that you’re not [ignoring structure] because you’re lazy and don’t want to make it tighter. Know where your line is. For me, I think that comes down to what is the core emotional kernel to this.

I feel like story telling should always have some kind of message, even if it’s not completely clear. Would you agree with that?

That’s interesting. I think yes. I think the stuff that has something to say, even if everybody takes something different from it, I think stuff that has something to say is the best stuff.

I think when you get started writing there’s a real draw towards being vague and thinking “This is just gonna be something I’m gonna put out into the world and people are gonna take it the way they wanna take it.” You’re a little afraid to commit to a specific viewpoint or message. I think that ties into structure a little bit, too, and it takes a while to get to the stage where you’re confident enough to say  “This is a point I’m trying to make, and this is how I want to make it.” Being confident enough in your work to make a statement, I think, is a sign of evolution in your career in writing.

I can see that with a lot of people I know actually. They started out and maybe were unsure about if they wanted to say something, so they just write to write or write to be funny. Personally, I’m the opposite. I never wrote anything to write. I came to this at a later point in my life, so I think, for me, writing was always a vehicle to say something. So, I don’t know how I would write if I wasn’t trying to say something. I literally don’t know. I never was like, “Here, I’m just going to go and write a sketch,” and I think that’s a pro and a con. Sometimes my characters will just rant or soapbox and I hate that. You have to find better ways to articulate what you’re saying; I think I came at it backwards in that way.

Episode #1: Fashion

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Episode #3: Types

Luke is a writer/director at CollegeHumor and a watcher of many web videos. Send him yours @LKellyClyne.

Why Writing Is More Than Just ‘What You Know’