Article inspired by various speakers at the Backspace Writers Conference 2012 including Jessica Anya Blau, Jael McHenry, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, and David Robbins, among others.
"Write what you know."
Every writer has heard it. As a writing teacher, I'm guilty of having said it to my students. It seems like such logical advice; one can write more convincingly about the experiences he has had in life: the jobs he's held, the places he's visited, the crushing relationships he's started and ended. But if you really think about it, what would books be like if writers only wrote what they knew? To start, there'd be no fantasy, no dystopian tales, no science fiction, so good-bye Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Star Wars. Shades of Greywould only exist if someone was saucy enough to admit to living such a lifestyle. We'd know for sure Stephen King ought to be locked up. Even realistic fiction would vanish. Readers looking for a story would be left only with memoirs.
"The human experience is universal." - Jessica Anya Blau
Of course, most writing instructors telling their students to write what they know probably had a less literal meaning in mind. In a more broad sense, most writers should and do write what they know. They write about the experiences we share as humans (or fantastical creatures with human qualities). Writers take in the world around them, experiencing life's best and worst moments through close observations of family, friends, coworkers, even people in the news. These observations, coupled with writers' own life experiences, give them an entry point. Imagination takes them the rest of the way.
"Find a seed, grow a flower." - Jael McHenry
Writers find seeds everywhere. Those seeds are the small bits of truth, of knowledge, that they plant in a story to make it believable, no matter how far from the reader's reality the story may be. Without those roots for readers to grab a hold of, they wouldn't be able to suspend their disbelief in the more fantastical or intense moments. But stories can't be just seeds. Writers need to have the imagination and creativity to grow and develop tales beyond what they themselves or their readers have experienced. None of us have twirled a twig and rid our world of all evil, but all of us have had to experience the same coming-of-age trials of self-discovery and acceptance that Harry and the trio went through in the Potterseries. Rowling made her young characters' conflicts echo enough of our own experiences, that we were willing to tag along in their world and not question it's more outrageous details.
The seed is what a writer knows. Everyone has a bag of seeds in their back pocket, but most grow dime-a-dozen dandelions that wouldn't hold our attention for more than a second. A writer's challenge is to take those same seeds and grow a garden of flowers readers can't necessarily name and can't quite touch, but never want to leave.
I'll never again tell my students to write what they know. But I will encourage them to be collectors of seeds, growers of gardens, and reapers of fantastic and fantastical fiction.
Lauren Grimley is a middle school English teacher, writer, and author of the urban fantasy novel Unforeseen. Though she writes mostly fantasy, she likes to share her thoughts on writing, teaching, and life through her website: http://www.laurengrimley.com/