First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.
“Write What You Know” is probably the most common advice writers receive, so much so that it is accepted wisdom; and yet this is quite possibly the worst advice ever given to a writer. Here is what I understand this advice to mean: writers should be lazy and ignorant, and we should never, ever challenge ourselves to try to understand people who aren’t ourselves.
This leads to writers limiting their characters to activities and experiences they’ve had themselves, regardless of whether their own experiences are at all interesting. Their characters have worked the same jobs they have, pursue the same professions they do, go to similar schools or have similar friends. Because, according to the rule of “write what you know,” that’s all a person is qualified to write about.
The truth is you don’t need to be a fire fighter to write a story about fire fighters, or a chef to write a story about chefs, or a musician to write a story about musicians. Nor do you have to have immediate personal experience in those areas.
What you do need is research. The trick isn’t to write what you know, but to be aware of your ignorance, and remedy it. Put in the work to attain the information you need in order to make your characters sound and behave authentically. Writing is communication, yes, but that’s not all writing is; it’s also exploration, and that means heading out into unfamiliar territory. Take as your starting point that you should always write what you want to know—then the process of learning the needed information will be integral to the joy of writing itself.
Of course, there are more challenging consequences to “writing what you know” than just limiting the careers of your characters. This thinking is also part of what leads straight white males to write exclusively about straight white males, while also setting up the misguided expectation that minority authors will write exclusively about experiences relating to their minority status. This is a profoundly limiting approach to writing, which leads to a sort of ad hoc segregation besides. (Author Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk about this cultural expectation, which you can listen to here.)
There are, of course, situations where this advice is given with good intent, in response to a legitimate problem in a writer’s work. Student writers in particular can be a bit overreaching in their efforts to write a moving story—a middle class white kid from the suburbs who’s trying to write a profound story about the experiences of a slave woman in the deep pre-war south, based only on what they’ve gleaned of slave history in their high school history classes isn’t likely to write an accurate or particularly successful story. But the problem isn’t that they’re attempting to address an issue outside their experience. Rather, it’s that 1. They are attempting to address too many issues outside their experience all at once, and 2. They’re assuming they know more than they really do, and consequently, they aren’t doing the necessary research.
The appropriate alternative to this sort of overreaching isn’t to stick strictly to safe territory, but to start there and then move gradually outward, incorporating ever more disparate ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking, while making sure to add to your own knowledge as you go. Just because you’re writing about someone different from yourself doesn’t mean they can’t have anything in common with you—of course they can, and will! Find that common ground and you can build from there.
Of course, this is difficult. Reaching beyond yourself always is. But that’s the writer’s job.