Write what you know. Who said it first? After a cursory search online, I pulled up a variety of answers: Mark Twain, Howard Nemerov, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, untraceable. The words are so familiar, so old and wise, they must be true. Right?
In many ways, on a gut level, the adage makes sense. The creation of an authentic fictional world requires that the reader believe in that world, whether it’s 1960s suburbia, Hogwarts, or Mars. And writers are taught to build an authentic world through the telling detail: each examined item in a room, the sound of waves hitting a rocky shore, a smell of bread that drifts in from an open window. How to create such authenticity without actually having experienced it at some point in time? Or rather, it’s possible to create an authentic world, but it’s so so so much easier if you already know what that world looks like. Would John Updike have written so convincingly about the goings on of Elizabethan Brits? What about Jonathan Franzen – what if he were to tackle, say, Nigerian immigrants living in France? Alice Munro, a woman from rural Canada (and one of my all-time favorite writers, a hands-down master of short stories) writes almost exclusively about women living in rural Canada. By making the job of authenticity easier, these writers can focus on building their characters and the story, they can focus on language, sentence structure, pace, conflict, nuance.
Updike, Franzen, Munro – that’s some pretty good company. So why would anyone tackle a subject matter, a place, a time period about which they know nothing? Why make it so hard?
I, for one, say make it hard and Write what you don’t know. I’m far from alone – there are lots of folks out there who have commented on the pitfalls of following the write-what-you-know gospel. Here’s a great quote from PJ O’Rourke to that effect:
Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?
I can’t claim to be a blind guy with a funny little harp but here are some reasons why I think it’s vital to write what you don’t know, or at least to not be afraid to try it:
- Boredom: any writer needs to sustain interest in the subject matter of her or his work over the long haul. Having just finished the 9th (or is it 10th?) serious, full, line-by-line edit of my first novel, I can assure you that, were I writing about a white girl from Massachusetts such as myself, I would have thrown in the towel ages ago. That story I already know; I don’t need to write it. The stories I need to write are the ones that intrigue and mystify and move me. My novel centers on Josephine Bell, a young African-American woman enslaved on a tobacco plantation in antebellum Virginia. Could her experience be further removed from my own? Probably not, and yet Josephine’s story compelled me in a way that I still can’t quite explain – Josephine demanded that I write about her, even when I felt myself wholly inadequate to the task of getting her story right. What will compel you to keep writing at 3 am, knowing your alarm will go off in 3 hours, or your kids will come bounding down the stair? Knowing that no one is waiting for you to finish? There’s no deadline, no money, no award if you finish. There’s only you and the page and your own burning interest to understand these characters, this story. Write about that. And I bet it’s not what you had for breakfast this morning.
- Escape: I will admit that my day-to-day life is pretty boring. It’s nice, it’s fine – don’t get me wrong , I like it – but picking up the kids from school, sitting at my desk, checking my email, paying the bills does not make for scintillating experience. Writing what you don’t know – what, let’s face it, you would secretly LOVE to be doing – is the best form of escapism. You can climb mountains and swim oceans. You can foil an assassination attempt, tell off a bad boss, win at high-stakes poker. You can romance whoever the hell you want. Writing can take you on the kinds of adventures you would never try in real life, so why not let it?
- Empathy: Writing is, for me at least, always an exercise in empathy. How would that character feel in this situation? By imagining the thoughts and emotions of a character – by trying to experience them as my own – I am able (sometimes) to make that character breathe and move and (hopefully) to come alive for any reader, not just myself. The best way to exercise that empathy muscle, and to become a better writer in the process, is to imagine characters wholly unlike yourself. If you stick to writing about people with your socio-economic, racial, gender, educational background, there’s little room for empathy to grow and guide your writing. In my experience, it is much more rewarding and instructive, from a pure writing-as-craft perspective, to examine a diverse array of characters. And each time I struggle to find the voice of, say, a single mom in Arkansas or a slave in antellbeum Virginia, I improve as a writer, and maybe even as a person.
I’ll end with one more quote, this from Bret Anthony Johnston, director of creative writing at Harvard: ”
Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
Maybe indeed. But isn’t this the most wonderful thing a writer could achieve?