Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Write What You Know"

One of the most often reiterated pieces of advice, especially to new writers, is to write what you know.  I've heard this piece of advice disparaged a lot in recent weeks, so I wanted to stick up for this adage.

When I hear "write what you know," I don't think of it as an excuse to avoid research.  I've never heard it as advice to only write my own experiences or things I've seen for myself.  While it does inform and inspire my writing to go out and do other things, as outlined in this post on stepping away from your work-in-progress, I've never thought that it was telling me that I had to limit my writing to my own experiences.  If I want to write about my life, I'll write a memoir, and it'll be awful, because nonfiction is not my specialty.

When I hear that piece of writing advice, what I hear is that writing has to come from someplace genuine.  You can fake facts and statistics and what it might feel like to use magic or read a person's mind or travel to a world where you can befriend talking dragons.  You can even fake emotions, by approximating them to strong feelings you have experienced.

But in every book I've read and enjoyed, I liked it because it resonated with me, somehow.  Within the pages of every single book I've liked, a writer poured out a piece of his or her heart.  Somewhere in each of those books, there is evidence that the writer is somehow different from every other author on the shelf.

Within all of us, we have our convictions.  We have those things that we know to be true, because we've lived it.  We have a way of looking at the world through a certain lens.

We can't force ourselves to change that knowing, though it can evolve over the years.  Nor can we force others to see it, because trying will turn readers off.  What we can do, though, is share how we see the world, point out the truths in everyday life, shine a light on the things that pop out to us so that others will notice them, too.

When I put it that way, it sounds like such a stretch.  But it's not, to me.  "What you know" is such a mutable, changing, stretching thing that to call it limiting is to ignore what knowledge entails.

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