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“Write what you know.” Perhaps the most unfortunate advice that can be given any beginning writer, this admonition has for generations been emphasized in writers’ workshops, writing classes, and books on writing. Rarely is it explained what is meant by this rather vague dictum.
What is a new writer, especially a young writer, to do with this advice? Taken at face-value, at best it’s limiting and restrictive. At worst, strict adherence can promote self-editing before the writing even begins and taken literally can become the worst form of writer’s block.
It’s true. To tell your story effectively, whether in prose or poetry or any other form, you must write what you know. The problem arises when these four words are taken at their most simplistic. Beginning writers confronted with “write what you know” often understand this to mean “write only what you have actually experienced.” How frustrating, to be faced with such a narrow palette.
We all lead narrow lives with limited access to direct personal experience. Even the most educated, worldly, and experienced among us has personally seen only a small fraction of what it is possible to know. Even the ancient among us know very little from personal experience.
What do you know?
The concept “write what you know” does not limit you to only what you know first-hand. It can be and is much more. The writer is a creator of worlds. You draw together disparate elements to create living characters, entire communities, new histories. You have power over life and death. At will, you can direct and redirect the fate of nations and of individuals. How can you possibly do all this using only the resources of your small life?
You know more than you may think. What do you know, even peripherally, of the lives of your family members, friends, and colleagues at work? What do you overhear in a café, in a bar, on the street, or in a bus? Do you watch television news or read magazines and newspapers? Do you read any nonfiction books? How about fiction? Add all of this information to your palette. Draw upon it liberally. Universe after universe will open up, filled with stories for you to tell.
Writing need not be about recreating only one small life but rather about creating wonderful new worlds. You are the maker of those worlds, and in those worlds you are all-powerful and all-knowing. Whether you write poems, short stories, novels, screenplays, or any other form, you have power that would be unimaginable in the mundane world of your “real” life.
What do you know? In this universe created by you, you know everything. Be curious. Eavesdrop wherever you may be. Observe the ways individuals act and how they relate to one another. Watch television and movies. Read everything you can get hold of. Remember conversations you have with others or overhear. Fill your writer’s palette to overflowing. Mix and blend this knowledge at will to bring new life and realism to your stories.
And, yes, write what you know.