Write What You…NO!

by ryankl

The old idiom that a writer should write what you know can really yield myriad results.
You might end up with John Grisham writing a whole shelf of lawyers, or Stephen King creating a bunch of white teacher/writers as leading men. Frank Miller started to write grizzled old men even before he dutifully became one.
So often writers write about what they know, or think they know. Men default to writing male, and writing within their ethnicity, and so often imparting their profession on the characters. Hell. Brian K Vaughan wrote a slacker in his 20s when he was the same, and now he’s a father to young kids and so he writes about parenthood.
But writing what you know doesn’t mean writing about yourself. I think. I take it as meaning to write from the truths you know or have experienced. For instance:
William S Burroughs and Philip K Dick were both drug users [from memory, PKD’s daughter was calling this false in the commentary to A SCANNER DARKLY but I just can’t believe that, sorry]. So we have two writers with drugs coursing through their synapses and we most definitely have them writing about that topic.
WSB goes the route of writing about drug orgies and gratuitously defining and describing the heroin entering the body. It’s barbaric and decadent and insane.
PKD goes the route of writing about space drugs that allow different states of being and have weird names and tie into intergalactic espionage and character journeys of discovery.
Both are writing from what they know, but in wildly different ways. I find that fascinating that the one idea, the one experience, can yield wildly different results.
So, next time you are writing what you know, think about what it is exactly that you know. Can that become the core of a fantasy epic? Could your treaty about adoption fit an anthropomorphic romp as a sub-theme? Because we are human does not necessitate we write human stories, grounded in the same reality as our truth.
If all drug users wrote about using drugs, the story well would dry up quickly. Adapt, synthesise, explore the theme of your truth and then marry it to a wild idea, a fun story, compelling characters, an engaging landscape, and tell the story informed by the theme which plays underneath.

Because I do think it is important to sometimes write about the things you have learned, or are passionate about [it’s why fatherhood turns up as a theme in my stuff so often] but you should also try your hand at other ideas, things you want to know more about, things that scare you. And you need to come at these themes with subtlety sometimes. Be oblique, wash a real character over your truth and see how they react, see what changes when it’s them and not you.
Then, after writing these things, go out and learn more things so you have grist for all the mills.

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