From the first creative writing classes I ever took, and through the continuing articles and interviews read and podcasts heard, I’ve continued coming upon a mantra that I’ve always felt very conflicted about: Write what you know.
To a certain extent, the proverb makes a great deal of sense to me. The point in telling a story is to divine some sort of truth. When you fake that truth or over-/under- sentimentalize a truth, it comes across as bad writing. Worse, if you write about something incorrectly, you look like an idiot. It’s impossible to write about a real experience with which you’ve had no interaction.
But then again. Can I write about giving birth? I’m a man and don’t really “know” what it’s like. I’m not gay, so can I use a homosexual narrator? Can I make my main character a parent even though I have no children? I understand that there are nuances to these experiences that I will never fully know, but doesn’t it seem a bit fascist to say that only mothers can write about birth or homosexuals can write about same-sex relationships or parents can write about raising children?
On the other hand, why not write about what I don’t know? I can always learn as I go along. Even if I get it wrong – writing about a culture I don’t know or an experience I can’t have – don’t I have some sort of artistic license to make the experience my own? Not every birth, relationship and home life is the same. What if I set my story in outer space or in a dystopian future society? I don’t know much (nigh anything) about outer space, and a dystopian society would be 100% in my own mind… it could still be a meaningful story, right?
My problem: I agree with all three of the above paragraphs. I’ve juggled a lot with how to respond to the paradox. I think I have an answer, contradictory as it may appear. Boiled down to its essence, it’s this: Don’t write what you know. Write what you believe.
Let me try to explain this theory with some personal examples. 1) In high school, I ruptured my kidney playing ice hockey. Worse, as my kidney healed, blood clots from the rupture dropped into my bladder and obstructed my ability to “go”. I had to “pass” this blood clot. To put it briefly, it hurt. A LOT! Now, I’m not trying to offer myself a pity party. What I am trying to do is to show that I have first-hand experience with the pain involved when something foreign and big passes through a small tube of the reproductive system. In other words, I might have a small idea what it’s like to give birth. I’m not equating bloodclots to children, clearly those are different things, but you can see the similarities in experience. So, writing about the pain of birth, while not directly experienced, is still something I believe I can understand.
2) I’ve never had a same-sex relationship, but I have fallen in love… and out of love, experienced crushes and unrequited love, romantic fantasies, and had my heart broken, et al. Is it wrong to presume that the joys and pain I felt would be the same even if it was with someone of the same gender? As a high school freshman, the nerves I felt right before my first kiss with a girl would have been similar to my first kiss with a boy. So, writing a homosexual character doesn’t seem beyond my purview because the character’s love can’t be too dissimilar from mine.
3) I don’t have any kids (at least not yet), but I’ve been a child – a problematic one sometimes too. Also, I’ve spent several years teaching middle and high school. I know how children behave, adore, rebel, work, anger, celebrate. While none of those children are “mine,” the emotions I feel towards them are mine. Connecting with #2, I can even write about a child betraying a parent (or the reverse), not because I’ve been the child or the parent, but because I’ve gone through the feeling of betrayal.
There are so many events in the world that to experience all of them is just plain impossible. You can’t write what you know because, sometimes, you just plain won’t be able to know. But in the middle of those innumerable experiences are threads of commonality that allow us to relate. I can write what I believe because my experiences – while different on minor levels – still provide me with a universal and truthful verisimilitude.