Sometimes seemingly straightforward advice turns out to be more complex than we think. For instance, ‘Write what you know’ always sounds clear and simple. Who would disagree with it? Of course I should write what I know – how could I write what I don’t know? But what do I know?
‘Write what you know’ is actually a little depressing when you think about it. It excludes so much – alternative worlds, characters whom we’ve never met (many of whom we wouldn’t wish to meet), extreme experiences we can feel fortunate never to have undergone – all these things are excluded by ‘Write what you know’.
Or are they? I used to nod my head in agreement whenever I heard someone say ‘Write what you know’. Yet whenever I took their advice literally I soon realized it left me with virtually nothing to say! I have been blessed to have lived thus far a peaceful and unexceptional life. Little of it has been dramatic and much of it has lacked even the potential to be dramatic. If my own experience were all I had as raw material then I wouldn’t have much to write about.
Despite this, I feel emotionally rich. Much of that feeling has to do with personal relationships – good and bad – I’ve had over a lifetime. Overwhelmingly, however, what I know about life and people and experience has been learnt from art: principally wonderful fiction and wonderful theatre and wonderful films. I know much more than my own life, thank goodness, because I have been exposed to great storytelling in different media. Thanks to the tens of thousands of stories I have experienced, I know myself and other people a great deal better than would have otherwise been possible. It’s as if I have lived, not just my life, but hundreds of other lives as well. That’s a great gift for which I am very grateful. I know more than I know!
So I no longer take ‘Write what you know’ too seriously or too literally. In order to write, we need to live, and in order to live, we need to know the lives of others. The best way of doing that is via education, of course, and learning about the world, and also reading intelligent books or enjoying any of the other arts to which we are drawn. In these ways and many others we enter into ever wider circles of sympathetic engagement and understanding.
Our creative imaginations are nurtured by far more than the sum of our own direct experience. It’s up to us to feed them as much as we can and to be fearless in our imaginings. So write what you know, but remember: you know more than you think you know.
Now that I know and can write about.