“Write what you know” may be the worst advice ever given to writers, and I’ve spent the last decade trying to erase that piece of well-meaning help.
The reason: There’s a good chance if you already know it, it’s trite and hardly worth writing down.
More insidiously, “Write what you know” is a poor way for a writer to approach the world because it undersells the importance of exploration and adventure. The statement’s assumption is that the writer’s own thoughts and experiences are tantamount to the experiences of the unknown when nothing could be further from the truth.
Writers explore what makes us human. At their best, writers tell stories that reveal as much about the reader as they reveal about their subjects. To do that, you have to start each story as Tabula rasa, a blank slate.
Instead of writing what you know, here’s what I tell writers with whom I work
“Write What You Don’t Know”
You don’t know shit. In fact, the more you think you know, the more trouble you’ll find in your words. You will make false assumptions, and you will miss the subtle details that drive the world. Your self-assuredness may serve you well in life, but it will undermine your writing at every sentence.
Instead of writing all of what you know, spend your days figuring out questions you can’t answer.
Then honestly explore those. Listen to people who disagree with you, search for meaning in places you wouldn’t normally look, challenge what you think you know, and swim around in the uncertainty.
Along the way, you should embrace life, fail, and apologize. You should experience the worst parts of who you are, and then face those consequences. It’s in failure and apologies that we see ourselves, that we understand pain and loss, that we come to be surprised by other people, and we understand what truly matters.
Once you’ve gotten there, you can begin to understand those people who are different than you, and you can search for motivations in others that may not be readily apparent to you. You should tell the stories of the people with whom you most stridently disagree, and do that in a way the explains them for who they are and not as who you don’t like.
You explain without excusing. You learn to paint complex word murals and not just to draw simple black-and-white lines.
You should get frustrated with language, and tear about the dictionary trying to understand where the word is that you want to use. You should fret that what you want to say never comes out eloquently on the page, and spend time wondering why the tools of your trade fail you at the very times when you need them the most.
When you have done all that, then you can begin to draw the Venn diagrams that map where humanity builds bridges across the valleys that people say are too wide, and you begin to realize how much you don’t know.
Then write about that. You are ready to write about the world that you don’t know, to embrace the stories you don’t yet understand, and the people who you so casually wrote off when you wrote only about what you knew.
But none of what I have described is possible if you only write about what you know. You will miss out on the richness of the world, which is made up almost entirely of people, places, things, and ideas that you don’t even know exist.