Write What You Know . . . Or Don’t.
2010 § 2 Comments
Every writer has been instructed at some point to only “write what you know.” According to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop, the rule is one of the tenants of traditional MFA programs.
In some ways, the advice makes sense. Even with genres like fantasy readers expect believability. Writing about first hand experiences makes your writing more authentic, a holy grail of writing goals.
An example: my current book (the one I started during NaNoWriMo) features a main character who lives and works in a bookstore. I have over a year experience working at a bookstore. There are details I know about running a bookstore and the interesting customers (everybody reads something) that give my story a credibility – and humor – it otherwise might lack.
But writing what you know is a pretty limiting thing. My life experiences are far fewer than the experiences I want to write about. And there are some things I know that I know so well, they are such an intrinsic part of me, that I can hardly write about them.
A good example of that is being a mother. While on my blog I write about being a mother-writer (occasionally a writer-mother) all the time, it might surprise people to know that mothers rarely make it into my novels. And I never feature a protagonist who is a parent. Why is that? I’m not sure, really. I live my motherhood everyday. The exquisite moments, the horrible moments, they are all a part of me, like my bones and skin. They are so personal, so much a part of who I am, that I have an extremely hard time putting my experiences as a mother into words. I try to capture the way it feels to nurse my son, knowing he is the last baby I will ever hold to my breast and sustain, and the words fall flat. I try to describe the way my heart both explodes with joy and breaks in half when I look into my son’s big brown eyes, and it sounds hollow. The thing I know the best is the thing I am mediocre at writing.
So I say write what you know, or don’t, just write. If you want to write about something you don’t know much about, that’s what research is for. I think research will get you through a lot of topics. I wouldn’t recommend writing about something super technical or extremely complicated if you know nothing about it (I will probably never attempt a forensic mystery, for example) but don’t be afraid to write a story that, say, takes place in a different time or place.
The idea of writing what you know brings up another interesting topic – who you write. A woman writing a boy coming of age (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter), a white man telling the story of biracial siblings and their adventures (Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles), or a white woman telling the tale of Black maids in the segregated south (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help) are all examples of authors writing characters who are quite different from themselves. Some do a better job than others.
Now, my favorite characters in my own writing are extremely different from me. But when it comes to different races, religions, and backgrounds, should you also ‘write what you know?’ Can a white person get past their own privilege and write a nuanced character of color, or tell a story that isn’t just really about a white hero, or feel good race fiction?
I’ll be exploring those questions in several upcoming posts this month. Let me know your initial thoughts in the comments.