A lot of people get up in arms when someone tells them to ‘write what you know’, some of them for good reason.
I’m going to argue in favor of – sometimes – writing what you know, but for a specific purpose.
A ridiculously large percentage of the time, people will respond to the question “Why are you so annoyed about being told to write what you know?” with “Well, I don’t want to write about life in small-town such and such”.
Er, come on. What those people are basically saying is that all we know is the setting in which we grew up.
First of all, most of us have not spent our ENTIRE LIVES in one place.
Second of all, who says ‘write what you know’ has to refer to setting?
I mean, George R.R. Martin did not grow up in Westeros. Cassandra Clare did not spend her early years in NYC.
We do not ONLY know location. And we do not ONLY know how life works in one specific place.
Most of us have known loss. We’ve experienced hardship. We’ve fallen in love and out of love with significant others, friends, and places. We’ve known wonderful people and terrible people.
We know a LOT, guys.
Sure, maybe we are limited. I, for example, do not know what it’s like to grow up in the Middle East. I’m not transgendered. I wasn’t adopted. Because of this, I will likely never be able to convincingly write a book from the perspective of an adopted transgendered Iraqi child.
But that doesn’t mean I’m stuck writing in the tiny box of my own personal experience, either (which, by the way, is overflowing). Research and imagination can do a lot. It might not help me accurately capture that Iraqi kid’s life, but it might help me write believably about fearing for a home threatened by dragons. I did, after all, spend three years of undergrad in Boston, and then watch, horrified, as the city shutdown during the search for the marathon bombers.
In short, people aren’t necessarily telling you that you can’t write what you want to when they tell you to ‘write what you know’. They’re just (maybe) telling you that you might be able to write more convincingly if you figure out how it reflects what you know. If you draw on your own experiences (figuratively rather than literally), your writing will likely be stronger for it.
Think outside your little box, and then figure out how what’s inside that box applies to your thoughts. You know a lot more than you might think.
Do you ‘write what you know’? Why or why not?
P.S. I am not AT ALL arguing for writing only what you know, just pointing out that a) what you know might be more than you realize, and b) sometimes writing what you know can make your writing stronger. By all means, write what you DON’T know. Write what you WANT to know. But also consider the ways in which writing what you know can be helpful.