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.

Write What You Know, or No?

We’ve all heard the mantra “write what you know” on repeat, and probably from various sources too. It’s great advice, and true, but only to a point.

As a writer of speculative fiction, horror in particular, writing what I know can get a bit tricky. I have neither killed anyone nor have I been, well, murdered, but that’s OK because I am a fiction writer and I have this fabulous thing called an imagination. If my protagonist is killing another character, whether it be for the sake of revenge or just for the fun of it, I imagine my character is filled with adrenaline. That thought then allows me to draw parallels between something I can relate to (an adrenaline rush), and something unfamiliar. Remember that writing about what you don’t know, does not mean you can’t use your own experiences. In fact, your own experiences allow for the addition of realism to what you are writing.

I think about the favorite concerts I’ve attended. The adrenaline in a crowded room where the people are there for the same purpose, the same enthusiasm to hear the music, that excitement mixed with the cheering and screaming of the crowd is infectious. You are part of a moment where heart thuds and the lights flash as the band starts playing that song you love.

I take a moment like that, use those images and emotions, put my character on the stage and imagine they are looking out over the audience, feeling all those things, murdering their victim to the sound of a cheering audience, and it becomes what I know and what I don’t know blended together.

Clearly an adrenaline-filled moment can be applicable to moments outside of, uhm, murder, but that’s my example because well, horror writer. Sorry. (Not really).

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 5.47.08 PMSo how else can we write what we don’t know?

Writing in different genres than you’re used to is one way to get started. It needn’t be such a switch as going from a gory piece of horror work to straight up romance (but hey give it a shot, anyway! You’ll likely learn some useful angles to write about love interests). You can always take smaller steps, too. For example, trade in a supernatural suspense for a crime thriller, or if you typically don’t use any mythological elements maybe try out magical realism and see where it takes you, or take your mystery tale that happens in a mansion and put it in a western instead. There are many literary genres to play around with, so take some time and explore things outside of your comfort zone.

Genre is a fun way to explore the unknown, but what about the characters and settings? Take a look at your characters, time periods, and locations. Are there a lot of consistencies between your various works?

I’m definitely not saying that’s a bad thing if there are. I get stuck in my Victorian Gothic ways when it comes to short stories, and it takes me months to leave my tropes behind (I love them so), but it is refreshing to embrace something new.

If you are always writing about times long past, try throwing your characters into a modern setting (and vice versa). How about your plots? Do you follow your own formula for every work, or take some twists and turns along the way to really make each work stand out? Do your endings always bring about a closed ending or an ambiguous one? Mix it up!

If your characters, whether they be protagonists or antagonists, seems startlingly similar in your works, do something different with their age, sex, race, background stories, or even their point of view. We live in a world of infinite voices and people. Our stories are allowed to reflect that diversity, even if it may seem uncomfortable at first for us to write about a culture outside of our own.

Research, interviews, documentaries, movies, and exploring the world around you are all ways to delve into the unknown, stir your imagination, and propel your writing to new heights. While details are important when it comes to writing about something you’ve researched rather than experienced firsthand, try not to get overly hung up on that idea. Write with the authority and confidence you would if you were writing about an experience you knew intimately. Also, if you can find a beta reader that does have whatever experience you are writing about, buy them lunch and get their perspective!

Writing what you do know will always be important. It gives you a solid basis to build up from, and allows you to teach your readers about the details of an experience. As writers, though, we have signed up to be a part of a lifelong learning process. This is a craft where there is always room for improvement, and observing the world, listening to the countless voices and stories around us, are ways we can put ourselves into new situations and strengthen our writing.Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 5.47.59 PM

We are forever students, delving into the unknown and thus making it known. Write for yourself, but don’t be afraid to write for others either. Write with realism and respect.

Overall, you are a writer and you should tell whatever story you want, no matter what. However, keep in mind the world is vast and while you probably will have a target audience to market your works to, remember that does not have to stay fixed. You are allowed (and encouraged) to step outside your comfort zone, listen to the world around you, delve into the unknown, take the chance, challenge yourself, and write about what you don’t (initially) know about.