We’ve all heard it, read it, even espoused it over the years. “Write what you know.” That has always been the prevailing rule of thought when it came to writing. Unfortunately, I’m proof that this piece of advice is hogwash to put it nicely. Raised in the city, I attended a high school that would be described as rough, and have always had access to the luxuries city living provides. Cultural and sporting events, theaters within a ten-mile radius of me in all directions, grocery stores on every corner, and restaurants more frequent than that. And our own sports franchises, even though they lose more than we’d like.
When I began writing short stories, I wrote “what I knew”. Taking on city life and the people I understood best. This should have been a total win for me. Imagine my surprise when my professor was totally underwhelmed. Well, if I wasn’t supposed to write what I knew and I couldn’t write what I didn’t know, where did that leave me? It was my second semester of grad school and one of my packets came back with the hope on my professor’s part that things would go better with my next packet. Ouch! There was a glimmer of good in that packet. In a short story that wasn’t quite working, he pointed out to me that I had found my real writing place. Apparently according to him, my writing came “alive” when I wrote about “small town life”.
Me? Someone who has never lived in one? Who has no clue what that’s like? What was it about the story that made it sound like I did? I spent time in a small town. As a writer, I observed life. I took what I witnessed and applied it to characters who could live anywhere. After all, we share human traits regardless of where we live.
That nugget of advice, “Write what you know” isn’t really accurate. What it should say is “Write what you want to know.” That small town fascinated me. It led me to want to tell their stories. I encourage you not to accept all writing advice without your own study of it. If you don’t know something, and you want to write about it, we live in an age where the information you need is right at your fingertips. Take advantage!
What writing advice would you suggest writers ignore?