For years, writers were told to “write what you know.” And this was something I heard when I began writing in 1997. It came up again and since I was surprised that little gem was still being bandied about, I did some research on who said it. While that little statement is most frequently attributed to Mark Twain, there is a general consensus that no one really knows who said it but more than that, it’s something that should be banned.
So, what does it mean, really? Well, some believe it should be taken literally – to mean writers should not write about things we have not personally experienced. This is actually the definition I heard many years ago. Now, I find it very amusing and my reaction to it can be summed up by a quote from Robert Duncan (writer for Rolling Stone, Circus, Hit Parade and Life among a few), “If I write what you know, I bore you; if I write what I know, I bore myself, therefore I write what I don’t know.”
Isn’t that great? Here’s another by Howard Nemerov (an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) that made me laugh – “Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”
So true. Now, I don’t consider myself uninformed. I’m smart. I know stuff. But I don’t know enough about places and things to infuse my stories with the atmosphere and depths readers are looking for. Because while we read about characters, we also read for places and things. If I were to write only about what I know, I’d be writing short, flat stories.
I write paranormal stories. I have yet to meet a fallen angel, demon or a shape-shifting rock. I have yet to travel to another planet. I have yet to visit Egypt and see the pyramids at Giza. I have yet to explore the Mayan ruins in South America. Yet, these are all places I have visited in my research.
I’d like to leave you with another great quote on author’s writing what they know. This is from Valerie Sherwood (romance novelist): “Don’t write what you know – what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you – and interests you deeply – and your readers will catch fire at your words.”
Would my writing be any better if I experienced some of these things? Maybe. I don’t know. I think what makes it great is that I haven’t been there so I can infuse my stories with the passion of discovering something new. And that’s what I try to do.
I hope you agree.