Write What You Know, Read What You Don't

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Write what you know" is a terrible cliche.  And I used to hate it.

I started writing long book manuscripts at the age of twelve—most of them were historical fiction and dealt with arranged marriages and forbidden love.  Neither of which I experienced in middle school.  When I first starting showing my work for feedback, the response I usually got was, "Ciera, you should write about things you know."

I completely misunderstood this wise piece of advice.

"Write what you know" doesn't mean what you think. 

Was I only supposed to write about things that had happened to me?  Could I only create stories based on the life of a homeschooler in central Florida?

Definitely not.

But I realized the truth in the classic recommendation when I first attended CBA, Christian Bookseller's Association Convention, (see this post!) and was pitching my interracial love story Black Roses.  I was sixteen years old.  The usual responses I heard were in regards to the fact that no one was interested in that kind of book.

What I wasn't expecting was when a marketing agent asked me, "Young lady, have you ever been in love?" I shook my head.  And he said to me, "Then how can you write a love story?"


Now, in my defense, the novel focused more on depictions of social injustice as illustrated through an unfolding relationship.  But in that moment, I could better understand the meaning behind the truism of "write what you know" — which I now agree with, but with some explanation and tweaking.

Writing should draw upon our experiences and emotions.

Here's what I mean.

I don't have to write about only the things I have personally experienced.  But I should write about things based on my own experiences.  I don't have to write about only the emotions I have personally felt.  But I should write about things based on my own emotions.

No, I have never been forced into an arranged marriage.  However, I have been forced to do things I don't want to do.  No, I have never been in love, but I have felt emotions akin to love.

Substitute Ordinary for Extraordinary.

For any actors out there, it's similar to the technique of substitution.  As writers, we should substitute the things we do know into the place of things we don't.  The best writing is woven with truth from the writer's life — what they have felt, experienced, done or witnessed.

I have written stories about characters ranging from an orphan in foster care to an old woman in retirement, from a psychotic old man plotting a murder to a writer who becomes consumed by the thought of his own death.  These are far from things I know or have felt personally.  But I can empathize, therefore I can understand.  By substituting my experiences into the position of the characters, I can interpret a story.  This is what allows us to write sci-fi or fantasy, which is clearly not something we've seen, but believable make believe is grounded in reality.  J.K. Rowling surely never went to Hogwarts, but her story was likely inspired by placing everyday people and things into extraordinary places.

So, write what you know.  But don't limit that to only what you've done.

However, there's more.

Write what you know.  Read what you don't.

So many people stumble into the pitfall of only reading the same kind of book over and over, or even the very same book again and again.  While this certainly has its merits, it can also limit us and keep us from expanding our breadth of knowledge and understanding.  If we only ever read classical fiction, we lose an appreciation for modern kinds of literature, which are built upon the very foundation of the classics.  If we only read Dystopian novels, we don't appreciate the contrast these books provide to others, including Utopian.

Read biographies.  Non-fiction.  Memoirs.  Novellas.  Poetry.  New York Times bestsellers.  Read these right along with your "favorites".  Right now, I'm in the middle of The Book Thief, Bonhoeffer and The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England.  A novel.  A biography.  A research text.

Choose diverse books!  Expand the horizons of what you read and you will be expanding the horizons of what you know.  The more you read, the more colors are on your palette with which to paint realistic stories.

Can I just say...I really want this library ladder?!
One of my favorite classes at Wheaton thus far was an English seminar taught by Jeffrey Galbraith and it was focused on Grief, Elegy and 9/11 inspired poetry.  In this class, we studied texts from Antigone to Freud to a modern novel by Ian McEwan.  (Speaking of which, I highly recommend Saturday by McEwan — great book!)  This wide range was incredibly refreshing!  We talked about the relationship between Antigone and Hamlet to the way people still grieve today in the post 9/11 world.  This class had a diverse range of books, which led to a more fulfilling thematic investigation.

So, stretch your mind.  Try new things.  Keep writing and keep reading.

For after all, great writers are simply first great readers.

Do you agree?
Can you write what you don't know?
What's on your reading list?

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  1. I agree Ciera. Sometimes it may seem daunting to write or compose something which we have never gone through. But as you say, it is vital to weave snippets from our own lives with people and places which exist only in the imaginary sphere. This exceptional ability of some writers has given the literary world an heirloom of great fiction and has made it possible to attach ourselves with some priceless characters and places.
    I'm currently reading - Masterpieces of Modern Urdu Poetry by K.C Kanda.

    1. I think you're right. I love how you said "an heirloom of great fiction" — it's so true that we can become attached to characters and the world an author so masterfully creates. And I've never heard of the Masterpieces of Modern Urdu Poetry but I'll have to check it out. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Definitely agree! Half of what I write is what I don't know and have researched and/or have experience something similar.

    Alexa Skrywer

    1. So glad to hear I'm not alone in this!! Thoroughly understanding our topic makes for solid writing. Thanks for sharing!