The common adage, “Write what you know,” is most commonly attributed to Mark Twain. While I’m a fan, I’m going to have to call bull shit on this one. Every writer is told this at some point, especially early in their careers. As far as good advice goes, it’s not the worst. The most authentic writing happens when the author draws from their own experience. However, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the best advice, either.
If you only write what you know, you’re limiting yourself pretty severely. Yes, it’s good to draw from your own experience when writing, no matter what genre you’re writing in or what kind of character you’re writing. Your characters are going to experience emotions, and guess what? You know what emotions feel like. You know what it’s like when your throat swells with grief, or when your heart races and your lungs tighten in fear when you hear an unfamiliar sound in the dark – those are things you can use for your writing. Even if you’ve never been on a grand adventure or been plagued by the demons of your mysterious past, you know what your characters are feeling because at some point in time, you’ve felt those same emotions.
But those are just emotions. If you only write what you know, you’re still limited to only your experiences. You can’t write an epic fantasy tale about a dragon if you’ve never seen a dragon. Never been possessed by a demon or haunted by a ghost? Sorry, but supernatural horror is out. Unless he’s been one before, a man can’t write from a woman’s perspective, and vice versa. Woe betide you if you want to write about people of color and their struggles if you yourself aren’t a person of color!
The problem with only writing what we know is that we are trapping ourselves in our own little bubble. If we only write what we know, we lose the opportunity to learn about and empathize with people who are different from us, and that is a tragic thing. In my opinion, one of the main purposes of writing is to take a step outside of the bubble, to learn more about myself as well as the world around me. I can’t do that if I only write what I know. Instead, I offer an alternative piece of advice: Know what you write.
Absolutely, draw from your own experience for your writing, but don’t limit yourself to just your experience. You are allowed to draw from other people’s experience as well. Want to write a war story but have never been in a war yourself? Cool. Go talk to someone who has. Chances are, you know someone who was once a soldier, or you know someone who knows someone who fought in a war. Set up an interview. Don’t know what to ask? Just let them talk about their experiences and ask questions when you need clarification. Mythology is a great source for those writing fantasy, and there are a multitude of world-building tools available for fantasy writers – world-building is half the work when it comes to fantasy. Religion and folklore are great for supernatural horror writers. If you still want to write about people of color, there are people all around you who would be happy to tell you about their experiences. You don’t have to write what you know, but you’d better know what you write pretty damn well.
It’s not a bad thing to write using your own experiences as inspiration – that’s how you make your writing uniquely “you.” Just remember not to trap yourself with those experiences. If you’re not stepping outside yourself and learning, you’re not growing. If you’re not growing, you can’t create anything new, interesting, and profound.
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