We’ve all heard the phrase: write what you know. (If you haven’t, what rock have you been hiding under and can I share it with you?) It certainly gets bandied around enough. This is one of the most repeated bits of writing advice, but it is also the most misunderstood.
It’s a fairly generic, ambiguous little phrase, isn’t it? For people just starting on their writing journey, the advice can leave them scratching their head. If you grew up in New York and lived a rockstar life, does that mean you are only supposed to write stories mirroring your own lifestyle? If you have a degree in anthropology, does that mean you should always try to work that knowledge into your stories? Yes and no.
Write what you know is a guideline. Not only that, it’s something to aspire to. Bear with me now. I’m going to deviate into a little backstory to help provide some context to what I’m talking about.
A few weeks ago, there was a ginormous kerfuffle over a book that was vanity published because of its racist themes. The very title was questionable, but the contents of the book were even worse. While the author claims they were attempting to spin racism on its head and help white people experience the world from a different perspective (that of POC who have suffered because of their skin color), and they very well may have been honestly trying to do this, it failed miserably.
Here’s why: they didn’t write what they knew. I don’t believe sufficient research was done into the perspective of people who suffer racism on a daily basis. I don’t believe research was done on white privilege, cultural imperialism, or even the history behind racism and persecution. If the author had done their research, they would have known that blackface is never acceptable. They would have known they were misusing their racial slurs, placing a negative value judgment on dark-skinned people when the author claims they meant to do the opposite. They would have also known that referring to a dark-skinned man as “beastly” isn’t sexy, but actually a throwback to the negative connotation of African American men being portrayed as sexually savage beasts.
In short, the author did not write what they knew.
Here’s the thing. As authors, we should always be reading, striving to learn new things and expanding our knowledge into new areas. If you want to write about racism, by all means, do so. But do your research first. Make sure you understand there’s much more to it. Once you’ve done that, you’re making the first steps toward writing what you know.
Once you realize that writing what you know isn’t a limitation but a thing to aspire to, the more you’ll have to write about.