Rolling In The DeepToday's Tune:
We've all heard that we need to "write what we know." But what happens when we take that recommendation too far?
If we stick too closely to the idea that we can only write about topics within our own realm of experience, we might be setting up limits for ourselves and our writing. We might end up with a semi-autobiographical (or even fully autobiographical) retelling of our own life, with an author avatar for a protagonist. Sure, this can work if it's done well (Looking For Alaska is often cited as a semi-autobiographical work loosely based on John Green's own experiences at his boarding school), but it can also flop.
A lot of beginning writers go this route. They write stories based around their own lives and they create characters that are thinly-veiled copies of themselves and people they know. Many people go through this stage. I did. I imagine a lot of my readers probably did, too. It's just one of the multitude of steps we go through on our writing journey, along with imitating styles we admire and trying to mimic the classics.
And, let's face it, the "write what you know" advice exists for a reason. If we write about a subject we have literally no clue about, it shows. Many a story has been slammed by critics for being insensitive or ignorant in its portrayal of X subject or Y character.
So, if we have to be careful not to write a fictionalized autobiography (which can, uh, cause some personal rifts if friends and family recognize themselves as characters), and we also have to be careful not to write about something we're completely clueless about, then what do we do?
We find the middle ground. We research. We give subjects the proper respect and proper due. It's absolutely okay to want to write about something you've never personally experienced yourself. For instance, I've never been male. Or a racial minority. Or an archeologist. But I can certainly write about those topics if I do my due diligence, which may include anything from reading other accounts of those topics to speaking with members of various groups.
The key here is really the pursuit of knowledge on the subject. Don't just assume you know about an experience you've never had (such as the experience of being a teenage girl when you have never, in fact, been a teenage girl). Read books about it. Talk to people in the know. Ask questions. Really try to get into the mindset, understand and empathize with a situation you've never experienced.
In the end, "writing what you know" can be taken too literally. We think if we've never experienced something, then we can't write about it. And honestly, that may be true if it's something too far out of our natural state of mind for us to understand. But we can also apply our own lived experiences to other topics.
For example: I have never been mugged. I do not know the fear or emotions that go along with such an experience. However, I have been home alone when I thought someone was trying to break into my apartment, and I have had overbearing men corner me at bars or on the street. I imagine I can very easily apply these similar experiences to the experience of being mugged to reasonably draw on what it might feel like.
What say you, readers? What do you think about the term "write what you know?" Do you think some writers are too strict with it? Not strict enough?