A common bit of advice given to new writers is, "write what you know." But what if that's bad advice?
Okay, I'll admit that as I started out as a writer taking writing classes in college, "write what you know" was helpful in spirit. What do I mean by, "in spirit"? Well, the thing is, I don't think I really knew a whole lot in my late teens and early twenties. I knew some things and had experienced a surprising bit of life as I dealt with culture shock when I moved from South America to Indiana. I was the son of American missionaries in Brazil, where I was born and raised. So I knew a thing or two. But did I know enough to really have something to say in my writing?
Here's the thing about "write what you know." It is a great starting place for new writers. We need to look inside ourselves and say, "what do I know to be true about the world, about people, about life?" With that in mind, we can at least establish a direction and general worldview for our writing. I think when we're just getting started writing it can also be incredibly helpful to write about characters and topics we are already familiar with. So, of course, if you know nothing about 16th century London, you probably shouldn't pick a story to write set in 16th century London. You could go research it, but when you're just starting out as a writer, chances are you'll spend all your time in research, procrastinating. The research can become a convenient reason for why you can't start putting words on the page. You feel you don't know enough to get going on the actual writing. And you might not be wrong about that. So for the totally green writer, by all means, please write what you know. Otherwise, you may never actually get around to writing.
But if you are not a novice writer, is "write what you know" still applicable?
I would like to suggest that, no, it is definitely not. Not at least in such broad sweeping terms. My hope is that as a storyteller who has been at it for a while and has had many life experiences that I have gained a fairly intimate awareness of many aspects of the human experience. So yes, when I write characters, I will often "write what I know" about human relationships and aspirations. But that's it! Beyond that, I cannot see "write what you know" as being a good guiding principle for all of my fiction writing. It seems blogger and author Eric Dalen, seems to agree with this in his blog post on the topic (which is where I came across the above quote).
For non-fiction, "write what you know" does seem quite appropriate. I have written one non-fiction book so far. It's about making short films in the fast-paced digital landscape of online media. I have been making short films more than a decade and observing how the very medium of short films has changed since YouTube and Facebook showed up. I know something about what's happening there and why, so naturally it was a non-fiction book I could write.
For fiction, however, I don't see "write what you know" being such a good idea. I recently had an interaction with someone where they cited "write what you know" as the reason they don't necessarily seek to write main characters with a diverse range of gender and ethnicity. I understand this impulse. After all, if I'm honest, as a white male, it is quite easy for me to automatically picture my lead character for my next short story or novel as being a white male.
But if I only write what I know, then I could never take on a whole range of fictional situations and diverse characters. Because of this, I say, "write what you're curious about." And in the process, do your research and gain personal experience where possible so you can get to know what you're writing about.
I also find that I've had to make conscience choices to write more diverse characters because, as I already mentioned, it can be so easy as a white male to automatically picture a white male as my lead character. But if I pause for long enough and start asking ... What if my lead isn't a white male? ... Often the story begins to take on new dynamics and become more compelling to me. I find new things I'm curious about.
Even when characters are very different than myself, I know I can draw upon common realities that all people love and experience loss, all people have aspirations and hopes and fears and baggage. Empathy is the key here. That was an essential reason why I felt I could really dive into write a lead female character for my first (published) novel, Unidentified.
My point is that I don't what "write what you know" to become some sort of reason to shy away from my calling as a storyteller to bring more beautify and empathy to this world. I want to avoid creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don't know how to write a female character and I'm determined to write only what I know, then I guess I won't write a female character. But then I'll likely never feel like I can write a good female character, so I never get around to it.
Likely, though, if I feel like I can't write good female characters or good minority characters, it probably says more about my lack of relationship with such people. So maybe ... I need more personal knowledge and relational experience in this area before I can write. But I think the core concept is still empathy. I may not be black, Asian, latino, female, gay, transgender, or any number of other things. But I can learn about and empathize with real people who are. As I seek to do so, I have found that far less separates all of us than I might initially think.