“Write what you know.” It has been the maxim of writing teachers for decades. We have all been told to write what we know and the universe will reward us royalties and renown.
I hope the writing gods forgive me, because I am about to commit an act of literary heresy. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know. If you let yourself be tied down by that thinking, you’ll miss out. What did J.R.R. Tolkien know about being a wizard? What did Shakespeare know about being a twin separated from his brother at birth?
You don’t have to have firsthand knowledge of your subject to write a classic that will enthrall readers for generations. You do need to get your facts straight, though. You don’t have to write what you know now, but you should write what you can research (Tolkien spent a lot of time creating the languages of Middle Earth, you know).
Now, does that mean that “write what you know” is dead? I don’t think so. I do think we should reevaluate what it means. I don’t want to be stuck writing story after story about writing papers or worrying about grad school. Perhaps we can look at it another way.
At the heart of any good story, in my opinion, is human experience. That is something which cannot be faked. We are drawn in by emotion and we react to authentic emotions. So, how about we simply write what we feel? Think about it. I have not personally dealt with cancer-related deaths in my family, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about a family that is forced to deal with it, because I do know loss. My characters can pop off the page because the emotion is real — derived from my own painful experiences.
As a human being, I’m intimately familiar with love, heartbreak, success, failure, happiness, despair, friendship, and loneliness. Aren’t these feelings at the core of every great story? I may be limited in my knowledge, but my background is rich with experience. If I make the emotion the center of my characters, then I will have crafted characters readers can identify with. Everything else will then crystallize around it. It’s that kind of raw human passion that makes the great novels so great. In the end, it is the emotion that will carry your narrative, not your research (though it will go a long way toward reinforcing your credibility).
So, forget what you know — write what you feel.
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