(This post was spurned on by a video I saw on Kristan's blog. I highly recommend watching it, even though it's a little long.)
Write what you know.
It's probably the first piece of advice the average person hears about writing. In movies, there's always some writer who is struggling with writer's block or writing genre fiction. A wise, older writer or teacher or dude on the street will come up to that writer and be all, "Write what you know. Just write what you know."
Then the writer will nod, knowingly, and run off to write their best-selling novel based on real events from their life. *Cough* See Little Women or Anne of Green Gables *Cough*
I'm gonna be honest with you here—I pretty much loathe "Write what you know." Like, just typing it makes me twitch. The reasons are many. I think a list is in order.
1. Hi, it's FICTION.
If writers really just wrote what they knew (taking the literal meaning of this phrase, which many an average non-writer does), then that would mean writers only write autobiographies, memoir, and non-fiction. Where does that put the rest of genre fiction?
Are we really going to argue that C.S. Lewis actually had a hidden portal to Narnia? Or perhaps that J.K. Rowling knows exactly what it's like to be a teenage boy wizard? Or that Charles Dickens was secretly an old miser who got visited by the ghosts of Christmas? Or that Stephanie Meyer actually knows what it's like to fall in love with a vampire?
Of course they didn't. Of course they made it up. That would be why it's called fiction. Despite how real it feels, writers make their stories up. We could even say this of many realistic writers. Jane Austen—did she know exactly what it was like to be a wealthy, oblivious heiress with horrible matchmaking skills? And yet she wrote a very convincing Emma.
Writers don't write what they know in the literal sense, at least not all the time. And I actually think this little piece of advice is quite dangerous.
2. It Creates Assumptions Both in Readers AND Writers.
I am white. I am a woman. I am American. I am young(ish). I am Mormon. This means I am only allowed to write about girls who are white Mormon Americans, right? Or not. But I have felt that pressure. I have felt the expectation that for some reason I am not allowed to explore other people, places, and cultures within my writing. That when a reader sees my face, they will expect a certain story from me.
I hate that, and I think part of this expectation comes from this false idea that writers always write what they know.
Let's look at the book I hope to sell: It's about a Japanese-American boy ninja living in San Francisco.
I know I'll be judged for writing this book, and worse, my book will be judged for who I am. People will look for flaws intentionally, try to find where I messed up. And there's nothing I can do about it. Some will think "What right does she have to write that? How can she understand her character?" Others might think "That takes guts." Some might not be able to suspend their disbelief just based on my name on the cover (if it ever ends up there).
It's sad, but it's true. And as bad as it is for me, it's worse for others. Why is there an expectation, for example, that all multicultural writers should write about their lives (or their grandparents' immigration, or their countries of origin)? If we know someone is Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, do we expect them to stick to issues only in their own religions?
How much do we judge a work of fiction just based on the author? Is it right to do that? Just because an author is gay or Mormon or atheist, etc., does that mean they only write about that? And if they don't, are they somehow trying to indoctrinate us with subliminal messages in their books? Can I come up with more silly rhetorical questions to emphasize my point? (Yes, but I won't.)
I don't think my own creativity and storytelling should be boxed in like that—I don't think anyone's creativity should be limited to their own sphere. Fiction is a chance to reach outside ourselves, to learn, study, and imagine what it's like to be other people. If we only write what we know, I believe we're totally missing the point.
3. It's Almost Right, But Not Quite.
There has to be a better way to say what I think is at the heart of "Write what you know." Something more like:
Write what you feel. Or Feel what you write.
Or maybe Write what you want to know. Write what you want to learn?
Or perhaps Make sure the emotions in your work are authentic for your character and that you research the setting, history, and culture of your story so that it comes to life and is believable even though it's fiction.
Yeah, I like that last one.
Think about it—as diverse as this world is, as different as people are—every human experiences the same emotions. The triggers for emotion are different for every person, but we do feel them. We all know fear and love and hate and sadness. We can empathize. We can imagine. And from this writers make their stories feel real, even if they've never been a half demon with a succubus for a mom.
And when I don't know something? Hello, research. I love research. I love constantly learning about new things and places and people. Whether it's reading up on the different neighborhoods in San Francisco or studying Japanese mythology, there's always some hole to fill in my knowledge when writing. I don't care if you write contemporary or historical—research is part of a writer's life.
Writing, like any art, is a chance to get outside ourselves. Yes, art can also be created by making sense of your own experiences, but really it can be both. So don't feel like you have to lock yourself in your own little reading/writing box. You really don't have to write what you know.