Writing What You Don’t Know

“Write what you know” is a phrase that has been following me since I started studying creative writing during my undergraduate years. This phrase would be echoed to death while I pursued my MFA, and don’t get me wrong, it’s great advice, but it’s also the mostobvious advice you could give someone. Of course we have to know something about something to even begin to write about it – so whenever someone says, “write what you know,” it makes me want to flap wildly at that person until I turn into a bat and fly away.

We all start with what we know. I’m not sure it really needs to be drilled into our heads that much because of course when I’m writing, be it prose or poetry, some subjective element of myself whether I’m cognizant of it or not is going to bleed out and into the pages. However, I think there’s something dangerously misleading about solely “writing what we know” because if we’re to live by that phrase, it risks the danger of not encouraging writers to find out what they don’t know. It risks the danger of someone becoming afraid to write about characters outside their own race or culture. I imagine if everything I wrote was forever only from the viewpoint of a white, American woman in her mid-twenties, then those stories would get horrendously boring quite quickly.

I fear the more we propel the notion you can only write what you know, especially to writers just starting their first story, then they will become afraid to write main characters outside of their own genetic make-up. I wholeheartedly believe one of the main freedoms of pursuing writing is to embrace differences, to study and research what we don’t know so we can rise above ignorance and understand how human connections span across the globe. Rather than being afraid of what or who we don’t know, we should instead interview people with different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, etc.… than our own so we can learn, and so we can beautifully craft stories that celebrate diversity.

The thesis novel I wrote for graduate school is currently floating around in market space, so it goes, and when I created my protagonist, she was someone I knew. She is similar to me in appearance and mindset, and a lot of things I dealt with in life are things that I put into her creation. Luckily, not everyone in the book is a white American, but writing that book also made me realize how much I want to grow my ability to write diversity. So, I write this article as a reminder to myself, and to anyone else who is sick of hearing to write only what we know.

Writing should be a celebration of incorporating all people – so yes, writing what you know can be a solid foundation to start with, but do your research, too. Study, research, interview, learn. Writing is a lifelong learning process, which is probably why writing and teaching are the two fields I’m drawn to the most. Writers should fearlessly leap into the abyss of the unknown and learn as much as possible – learning what we don’t know, after all, is what rounds out our knowledges, makes us more competent to participate in social engagements and societal conversations, so it only makes sense for us to continue our commitment to learning about a range of individuals and their unique stories for the sake of our humanity and for our craft.

While we base certain settings, emotions, characters and so forth on our experiences, I hope we move forward in our stories to embrace diversity and to do it well. I hope we take those precious moments of truly learning from one another and craft it into stories worth telling, worth reading. Strive to make the unknown known, even if it makes you uncomfortable at first. We’re all ignorant about something, or many things, but to brush off that ignorance and make the choice not to learn and embrace elements outside our comfort zones only ensures our writing will never reach the highest potential that it can.

So, go write something today. And more importantly, go learn something new.

*This article was originally featured on author Erik Hofstatter’s website here.

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