A few nights ago, I did what anyone would do when held down by writer’s block: I searched the internet for advice. You know what I’m talking about- those clickbait headlines name dropping famous authors and their secret to success, compilation “listicles” of quotes about writing superimposed over a copyright-free image…
There seemed to be one piece of advice though, that kept cropping up:
Write what you know.
I mean, it seems pretty straightforward, really. It’s natural to revert back to something familiar, or your comfort zone, because you know exactly what it’s like and how to portray it. “Writing what you know” also prevents insensitive writing about people whose experiences you will never truly understand. But writing what you know can also be… well, boring.
I’ll use myself as an example. If I only stuck to writing what I know, then quite frankly there wouldn’t be a lot of content. I’ve experienced neither heartbreak nor adventure- should my stories only revolve around growing up in a takeway? Should all my characters be British Chinese? Should all of them have perfect hair and a cult following? (Alright, I’m pushing it, sorry.)
A writer’s job is many things. We’re neuroscientists, queens and dragonslayers, we are cowards and we are intelligent, we are different cultures and ages and genders, we can even be inanimate objects. We tell stories of grief and suffering, of euphoric joy or complete and utter devastation- feelings which we might never experience. We create entirely new worlds, and in doing so, have a total understanding of the society, economics, politics and environment that is the fabric of these fictional worlds. The whole point of imagination, after all: a limitless space to let our creativity run wild. It’s not our job to tell the readers what we are; it’s our job to make them believe it.
I don’t think it’s a bad idea to write what you know. But I think it’s an even better idea to write what you don’t know.