Write about what you know

From Ontario Library Association on YouTube

From Ontario Library Association on YouTube

I saw this link come across Twitter the other day: an excerpt from a video interview with science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, where he discusses inspiration. He says some things about the importance of reading widely, especially nonfiction, to “fuel the creative process.” But the comment that really struck me was this:

This is another thing they teach you in creative writing class that’s wrong – they say, first lesson, write what you know. No, no, no, no. Write what you can find out about, and then go and find out about it.

I may have alluded to my opinion of the so-called “rules of writing” before. Suffice it to say, I am not a rules follower. While the rules may be useful to some writers, particularly beginning writers trying to get a handle on a massive and daunting process, I don’t think anything can be codified as an absolute rule in art. You should do whatever you need to in order to tell the story or produce the piece you’re trying to create, even if that means the occasional use of passive tense, adverbs, or whatever the rulemakers say is verboten.

I have a similar reaction to “write about what you know.” People take this much too literally, and what’s more, they very narrowly define “what you know” as “what you have firsthand experience of.” In literary criticism, this leads to the constant assumption that every work of fiction is actually a work of autobiography, and some writers whose characters behave badly get accused of all sorts of things. A friend of mine who writes romance novels has stories of uncomfortable encounters with male readers who confuse her with her heroines, and I can only imagine the kinds of fan interaction that the 50 Shades chick runs into. This may be a little less common in some genres; few people assume that mystery writers are actually serial killers, that science-fiction writers have gone to space, or that fantasy writers think they’re wizards.

Still, there are more subtle character features that are assumed to be a mirror of the writer. I once encountered a fellow writer in an online forum who felt intimidated writing about minority characters because she was white. Now, the issue of race and white privilege is its own tangled topic that I don’t want to cover here, but this example highlights the assumption that you can only write what you have firsthand knowledge of and no amount of research or observation can make up for it.

The truth is that you know things in many different ways. You know about things through firsthand experience. You know about things through careful observation of others’ experience. You know about things that interest you and that scare you. You know about things you wish for and things you hope to avoid. This creates a whole world of inspiration, not to mention so many opportunities to connect with other human beings, all of which would be completely gutted if you cut out everything except firsthand experience.

So get reading, thinking, and imagining. If reading is good for anything, it’s a way to expand our experience beyond the limits of daily life, and the writing process itself is no different.


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