whether or not you’re a writer, i’m sure you’ve heard this adage:
write what you know.
the fact is, I get where this is coming from, but i’ve always taken issue with it. it comes from the idea that a writer should draw on her own experiences to craft stories and characters. one could easily argue, I suppose, that every story has an element of something the writer knows.
but if you’re going to boil it down to something that simplistic, we can all say we’ve known love of some kind, we’ve all known loss of some kind, and we’ve all dared to dream at some point. that’s not a matter of writing what you know—it’s a matter of connecting to your reader. and if we all know these emotions at some point in our lives, why bother stating it? that’s like advising people to breathe in and out. we’re on it, we’ve got it, stop bossing us around.
so where does this leave us? it leaves us taking from this statement that we’re meant to write about the actual experiences we’ve had and infuse whichever emotions we find necessary. okay…but i’m not sure people would really want to read about my life. that is, I haven’t done that many interesting things. i’ve traveled a bit, and I have a black belt, and i’m now pursuing my third post-secondary degree. and yes, those could be stories. but after those three…what, i’m just done? how limiting is that when I have a perfectly capable imagination?
do we just erase this “sage” advice from the history of writing tips? no, I don’t think so—and at any rate, there will always be writers who tout this phrase as the foundation of their inspiration. listen, i’m not saying we shouldn’t write about our experiences. some folks have lots of interesting and/or heart-wrenching and/or life-changing experiences to write about. they should write about those things. but I don’t believe in taking someone who is a blossoming writer and confining them to their own experiences.
I hereby change the adage. like all things, I believe it must evolve. going forward, whenever someone asks what I think about it, I will answer that more accurate and inspiring advice might be:
write what you want to know.
writing is, in and of itself, an experience. sure, maybe i’ve only traveled outside of the usa once (I went to turkey and it was an amazing experience I will always treasure), but in my fiction I have the power to travel the world.
maybe when the original adage was coined (and it’s been attributed to several writers of epic fame, including twain and Hemingway), it applied because there wasn’t the internet. there weren’t interlibrary loans. information wasn’t accessible at the tap of a finger or by voice request to Siri, Alexa, Cortana, google home, or whatever robot you’ve decided is safe to invite into your life (just don’t read iRobot—I know, I use them too…but they’ll probably take over sooner rather than later).
anyway, I give you permission not to be hemmed in by advice that can no longer stand the test of time. write what you know if you like, if it makes a good story, but don’t be afraid to write what you want to know. not only will you free your imagination, but you’ll get to learn new things too.