It’s one of the classic pieces of advice for writers, right up there with show, don’t tell. Write what you know. But what does that mean? And does it really work?
That depends. If I took it at its strictest, most limited meaning, I would only be able to write about a white female with a teacher husband and three children, the oldest with autism. And no magic. Yech. I’m not saying I couldn’t write an interesting story or two about such a character, but it’s terribly specific, and the audience for a story like that might be limited to one person – me.
But let’s branch out the meaning a little. What do I know? I know what it’s like to fall in love. I know what it’s like to be a mother, and to deal with at least some of the challenges of parenthood. I know what it’s like to worry about money. I know what makes me laugh and what makes me cry; I know what sets my pulse racing and what puts me to sleep. I know that feeling when I’m in a public place and I have a sob building up at the back of my throat that I’m desperately trying to swallow, and it burns and chokes and finally breaks free. I know the sense that I had a fascinating dream and I just can’t recall any of the details of it, but the feeling lingers for days afterwards. I know a lot of things.
There are things I don’t know. I don’t know how it feels to come to the brink of starvation. I don’t know the terror of witnessing a violent war, or fleeing my country in the hopes of finding freedom elsewhere. I don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded with people who don’t speak my language, to struggle and struggle to learn their tongue and not look like a simpleton. I don’t know how it feels to be the slowest student in the classroom, and to know it and to hurt from it every day. I don’t know a lot of things.
So what does this mean for my writing? Is it presumptuous of me to write about anything that I haven’t personally experienced? That would eliminate all speculative fiction pretty neatly, and since that’s my preferred genre, you can guess that I don’t agree with that strict interpretation. I do believe that empathy is crucial for creating genuine stories. How can I develop empathy for characters whose experiences are well outside my own sphere? That’s where the power of imagination comes into play. I don’t know every kind of hurt, but I do know the grief I’ve experienced as I’ve dealt with my son’s autism. It becomes a metaphor, and in many ways my characters’ pain becomes a sort of outlet for dealing with my own pain. I don’t mean to say that writing is just therapy for me. It’s not always that, and it’s so much more. But when I feel a connection to my characters, a sort of shared experience, the story takes on a life that couldn’t be there without that connection. So yes, you should absolutely write what you know. But be creative about what you know, and let it grow into its own world.
I have a final word of caution about the pitfalls of writing about the Other. Writing other races, other cultures, even the other gender – whether it’s based in the real world or an imagined one – need special care. There’s always the danger of exoticizing the unfamiliar, of exploiting or appropriating the Other-ness. This all comes down, I believe, to a lack of true empathy, to an inability to see all human beings as human beings. We are defined by so many things. And every person is just as complex as every other. No one can be minimized to a series of simplistic stereotypes. This is especially challenging for minor characters, but it’s important to make an extra effort to empathize rather than otherize (if that’s not a word, I don’t care. I just made it one.) It’s fine, maybe even necessary, to write outside your small sphere of experience, but when you do, take care. You can’t look at other cultures, etc., like you’re selecting flavors of ice cream. People. We’re all people.