The important reason to write what you *don't* know

We know the familiar tropes:

  • If you love someone, set them free.
  • Location, location, location.
  • Write what you know.

Each holds a kernel of truth, but it's the third one I'm questioning today. To probe "write what you know," you first have to understand why this advice is given at all.

The advice "write what you know" holds a kernel of truth, and its intention is pure: You'll have more confidence in your writing if you've already experienced your story, drawing from those real-life emotions and their turmoil. You know how to fill in your friends on your life's happenings, so surely that translates to writing and pacing a fictional story, too. Or so one would think.

Its intention is pure: You'll have more confidence in your writing if you've already experienced your story, drawing from those real-life emotions and their firsthand turmoil. You know how to fill in your friends on your life's happenings, so surely that translates to writing and pacing a fictional story, too. Or so one would think.

I'm re-watching an old TV series in which a lead character writes a thinly veiled tell-all of his community -- so thinly veiled that each book character's initials match that of their real-life counterpart. It's lazy writing, and the author experiences extreme backlash (and professional success, due to TV storytelling magic and portraying creative writing as being much flashier than it is).

He's a young author, still in college, and "write what you know" makes sense for him. He's seemingly experienced so little that he must draw from friendship drama to fuel a story filled with a Congressional affair, lying fathers and lives of privilege on the Upper East Side.

Right?

Not quite. If we only write what we know, then how are we to tell stories of science fiction and magic, stories about the rise of the West in the 16th century and the house of tomorrow? Maybe your life looks like this: You went to school. Made friends. Lost friendships. Argued with parents. Kept secrets for your siblings. Fell in and out of love. It sounds familiar and boring, but what you do know, what your takeaway can be is a handful of universal emotions: empowerment, loyalty, anger, fidelity. These emotions are wider-reaching -- and require more storytelling skill -- than simply regurgitating what's already happened to you. You aren't a writer in that case; you're the town gossip.

When you rely too much upon what really happened, what you witnessed with your own eyes, you do a disservice to your narrative. Every word you choose when writing your story should be in service to its truth, not to the truth; in other words, the story is what matters most, and it's your job to get there unselfishly. Serve your story as a separate being, its own being, instead of making it about something else. You hear about how a story takes on a life of its own? As it should be.

Every word you choose should be in service to your story's truth, not to the truth.

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I want to invite you to trust your brain. If you're a writer, you have an admirable, creative imagination that's calling to play. It's insulting to tell yourself that you don't have imagination enough to understand, interpret and weave a tale about what you haven't experienced firsthand. And this is the reason I encourage writers not to solely focus on personal narratives: research.

With a background in journalism, I love researching other countries during past decades and their citizens holding jobs different from my own. I love that discovery process, but whether or not I enjoy it, it's a requirement for writers. You need to know how to research and make it a part of your story development. Maybe you're pumped about that, or maybe it's the icky part to you, but either way, it's part of the job. And knowing how to do it, as well as how it serves your story, is vital.

Now, there is amazing personal fiction out there, and it isn't to be discounted under this chat we're having. Some of my favorite storytelling about what the author knows firsthand includes I'm Supposed To Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman, Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson, Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl and Black White and Jewish by Rebecca Walker. You might find that in the beginning of your fiction-writing life (and your "beginning" might take two years, 12 years or six months; some of us always feel we're beginning), you pull from your life and write your story how it was before painting over it again and again with false details, concealing fact for fiction. I've tried this, and I have to say these aren't my favorite stories I've produced.

My favorite ones are those I didn't expect, the ones about lost people who find what they didn't know they were looking for, and as I write this now I realize how true those stories are to my own fact -- truer than if I'd pulled them straight from experience.

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