Taking "write what you know" too literally

| Monday, August 29, 2011
Today's Tune: Rolling In The Deep

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?


{ Matthew MacNish } at: August 29, 2011 at 5:27 AM said...

Almost all my writing is partially auto-biographical. It can work, but you make a good point. It can't be thin.

{ Lindsay N. Currie } at: August 29, 2011 at 5:44 AM said...

Love this post and it's so true. I recently did a post (maybe a few weeks ago) on this called Walk in Your MC's Shoes.

{ Claire Lachance } at: August 29, 2011 at 6:33 AM said...

There are a lot of things you can do in books that you can't do in real life, especially in Fantasy or Sci-fi, LOL.

{ prerna pickett } at: August 29, 2011 at 7:11 AM said...

agree fully with this post. Can you imagine what kind of books would be out there if authors only wrote what they knew? Boring.

{ Shari } at: August 29, 2011 at 9:57 AM said...

I just have to say that I totally agree with you. I think you can take things like places you haven't been or experiences you haven't had and emotions you have had and fit them in.

{ prerna pickett } at: August 29, 2011 at 12:05 PM said...

BTW, I nominated you for a couple of blog awards. Stop by my blog to pick 'em up!

{ Shallee } at: August 29, 2011 at 2:27 PM said...

I completely agree with your assessment of the real meaning of "write what you know." I always saw it as more of a psychological/emotional thing than an actual physical thing. I often put in concrete tidbits from my real life in my writing, but most of writing what I know means exploring outside my own experiences to find other things I can relate to BECAUSE of my experiences.

{ GKJeyasingham } at: August 29, 2011 at 3:09 PM said...

Well said! I'm definitely guilty of this, but I've recently been trying to seek out new places and ideas to explore. And if I end up writing about something I "know", I try to add twists to it so it still ends up being original.

{ kirstenlopresti } at: August 29, 2011 at 3:57 PM said...

You're right. A combination is generally best, unless you have a truly unusual and fascinating life.

{ Isis Rushdan } at: August 30, 2011 at 12:28 AM said...

You should write what you know, but you make great points about learning more. I was talking to a friend about my book and mentioned how I had to do research and that piqued his interest. He couldn't possibly understand what kind of research would be required for a paranormal romance. So I gave him a list of things I had to learn more about so I could make it real for the reader.

Great post.

{ anonymeet } at: August 30, 2011 at 7:21 AM said...

As writers, we should be able to imagine things, extrapolate from our own experiences to others - just as you suggested above. That's part of being a creative person. But sometimes writing what you know provides good grounding. It adds a layer of authenticity and plausibility without which the manuscript stumbles. Of course - this is where good research comes in - including talking to people who have been-there-done-that if you haven't!

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