Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What I Know

I want to break down my take on another piece of writing advice, because I've been hearing this one a lot lately and I don't necessarily agree with the explanations I've gotten. (I've noticed I end up disagreeing with the explanations a lot. I suspect this is a clue, but I'm ignoring it.)

The advice in question: write what you know.

I decided to talk about this one today because I recently heard someone criticize this particular piece of advice because, they claimed, that's how we keep ending up with a bajillion books about rich white men. I feel like this objection assumes a number of problematic things. Like, for just one example, that everyone writing books is a rich white man.

I've also heard proponents of write what you know arguing that a person who isn't a minority can't truly understand the experience of living a minority's life and thus cannot properly convey it. I feel like this argument is also problematic. I mean, I suspect J.R.R. Tolkein didn't grow up in a hobbit hole and probably never befriended a single elf in his whole life, I don't think James Patterson spent much of his time in the 90s as a black police officer in Washington DC, and I'm pretty sure Nicholas Sparks has never grown old and fallen victim to dementia.

My biggest problem with arguments like this isn't the logic though. My problem is that I think they're missing the point. When people tell you that you should write what you know, I don't think they're talking about what you know about your race, income level, sexual orientation, employment history, educational achievement, or anything like that. I don't think the goal is to encourage you to focus on anything that. . . faces out.

Write what you know, to me, is more about feelings than appearances. It's not about making your characters look like you. I'm a stay-at-home mom in suburban Chicago and the biggest challenges in my life right now are convincing my daughter to poop in the potty and making sure my husband's salary stretches from one payday to the next. I don't want to read a book about my life and I'm pretty sure no one else does either.

I write primarily urban fantasy. I don't know jack about life as a witch or a guardian angel or what it's like to grow up with a mermaid on my family tree. I'm none of those things and I'm not likely to bump into them on the sidewalk either. So should I just give up? Does "write what you know" mean I'll never be able to write those stories?

I certainly don't think so. I may not be a supernatural creature, but I know what's it's like to feel like circumstances beyond my control are threatening to take away my choices. I know what it's like to feel ostracized and ignored. I know what it's like to be afraid and alone and convinced that nothing is ever going to be okay again.

I also know what it's like to love so deeply it hurts. I know what it's like to laugh until I can't breathe. I've cried from sorrow, sure, but also from sheer joy. I've felt childlike wonder bubble up in my chest until I was sure I was going to explode.

I know what it's like to be scared. Excited. Embarrassed. Turned on. Turned off. I've had victories hold me up high and others that left me hollow. I know what it's like to feel like everything brought me to a specific moment in time. And I know what it's like to look at the world and not be able to make any of it make any sense at all.

I know those things. And not because I'm a middle class white woman. I know them because I'm alive and I'm paying attention and I'm human. And my characters know them because they are too. (Well, they're while not necessarily all human, because, again, urban fantasy, but they all at least possess a certain degree of humanity.) And my someday readers will know those things as well because they're also human.

I don't think write what you know is about the surface details. I think it's about finding the things under the surface that we have in common with each other and focusing on those things, using that common frame of reference as the filter through which we view the rest of the story. Writing, and reading, is often at its most powerful when it holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves in a new way.

So if we write what we know, if we focus on the things that make us who we are at the very bottom of our hearts and in the core of our souls and imbue our characters with the things we know and write from that place, that's how we build those mirrors and show our readers those reflections.

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