"Write what you know."
I've never heard any more clichéd (if at least superficially true) piece of advice on writing. And I've heard it millions of times. I imagine you have, too.
The basic sentiment behind the statement, that writers can best express those things that they have experienced or felt, is absolutely true. Those stories that best immerse the reader in the human experience, in the depths of love and hope and fear and despair and treachery, become inevitably grander for the author's empathy for and experience with those emotions. Likewise, a good autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) story, when told well, will reach its readers by its sheer authenticity.
Some of the more superficial implications of the statement are likewise true. A writer who has no knowledge of the basics of police procedure, for instance, will have difficulty producing a believable protagonist who is a by-the-books law enforcement officer. A heterosexual man will have difficulty writing from the point-of-view of a post-transition transsexual woman. An author with no previous experience in classical musicianship will have difficulty understanding just why the simplest of Bach preludes will drive a great pianist mad. These deficiencies in knowledge and experience can be nigh-on-impossible to overcome--or at least to overcome well.
But, if we take the oft-repeated adage literally and apply it to every situation, where then will we find the elements of fantasy? Of speculative fiction? Of paranormal horror? Heck, how can a person who self-identifies as cisgender female write from the point of view of her male counterparts? And yet writers do all these things--with varying degrees of success--every day.
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I recently came upon an article that argued that we should not be limited to writing what we know: we instead should write what we understand. If love (by its presence or absence) is a universal experience, then a writer should be able to place that emotion within the bounds of almost any context and produce a believable story. Or at least one entertaining enough to allow its readers to suspend their disbelief. Furthermore, that suspension comes more easily to readers if the author has paid particular attention to the world of the story, even if it's entirely fictional. A writer cannot necessarily know that world of pure imagination. But a writer should understand it.
I want to take that argument a step further. I believe that sometimes, we write what we know. Sometimes, we write what we understand into the context of those things we don't know. And sometimes, we write about what we don't know specifically because we want to understand.
I have written before on how my current novel-in-edits, Choosing Her Chains, began with a chance meeting of a character. She intrigued me from the moment I met her, and I dove right into the process of discovering who she was. But my journey from that strange first meeting to the present, as I attempt to clean up the final manuscript, was much more than character discovery. Through the writing process, I began to better understand myself.
The story has transitioned through three compositional stages. First came the vignette. I'd imagined this woman standing on the edge of a lake bed waiting for something. I knew she longed desperately to step out into the water, but that she was waiting for something to call her into its depths, to grant her the power and freedom to move. I wrote that first vignette to discover what--or who--she'd been waiting for. In the process, I realized that her desire, her longing, her courage and her fear, those were all just my own attributes projected onto an unknown character's form. As I wrote what would become the final form of that short scene, I had to delve into myself. What would most force ME to wait barefoot in freezing water? Could I have done what she was doing? What did I have to confront in myself before I could portray her decision authentically?
That 1500-word vignette grew a plot, and before I knew it I had outlined a 20,000 word novella. In that particular version of the story, I spent a great deal of time getting to know my protagonist. The outcome at story's end depended heavily upon a sensitive understanding of the plot points that came before it. I had to force myself farther than I had before. My own boundaries regarding writing had to be broken, or I would never be able to portray the kind of emotion I KNEW my protagonist felt at story's end.
The novella was never going to be able to stand on its own, because although I understood the protagonist's motives and decisions, I didn't really understand the characters that pushed her into those decisions. Outlining the full novel became a process of looking into each character's mind and discovering who they were, and how their own pasts and personalities contributed to their decisions within the story.
And that's when the epiphany came. I had known the story I wanted to tell. I more or less understood the "moral" I wanted to portray. But until I'd examined it from every possible angle, worked out each person's motivations and why they felt the way they did, I could not have articulated why I wanted the story to come out the way it has. And without the "why," the whole story (and its underlying premise) fell flat.
Now that the novel's about to enter its second stage of rewrites, I believe I've discovered why "write what you know" fails to work for so many writers, myself included. For many of us, there is a demonstrable difference between "writing" and "editing" and between "editing" and "publishing."
"Writing" is about discovery, about asking yourself what you do and don't know, and about seeking answers for what it is you don't understand. It's about giving yourself permission to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, even if the attempt fails miserably. Sometimes pieces never move beyond this stage, nor should they.
"Editing" is about synthesis. It's about taking those things you've learned while "writing" and turning them into something cohesive and clear. This stage turns ideas into beliefs and thoughts into knowledge. I have had many stories languish at this stage simply because I'm not yet quite at the point where I feel I've come to the correct knowledge with regard to the story.
"Publishing" is about taking what you've learned, what you now know, and presenting it as best you can to your readers. It's about taking your well-formed beliefs, knowledge, and passions, and letting them move in the world. The best stories, fiction or non-fiction, do well once published not only because the author wrote what they know, but because they validated that knowledge within themselves long before the story ever went to press.
So, I've decided to strike "Write what you know" from my bag of writing truths. Forevermore (or at least until next week), my mantra shall become:
Write what you don't know.
Edit to come to know it.
Publish what you know that you know.
Then if, at the end of the day, you change your mind, that's okay. The day we stop learning is the day we die (an apothegm seventy million times more true). But don't only write what you know. Write what you want to know. Pay attention to the details of what you're writing and eventually, you will know what you have written.