I hear “write what you know” all the time. I hear it quite often from people who don’t write at all but who want to share their opinions with me and this is typically Advice Snippet Number One they share when imparting their wisdom. I’ve heard this phrase on TV and I know I’ve likely read it many times on writing blogs, articles, and in the many books on writing that are out there. Know what? It’s always bugged me, but I couldn’t figure out why until recently, thanks to Pinterest. Yes, Pinterest. Yes, I’m on there. A lot. But anyway…
A writer friend recently pinned this quote: “I want to be very clear about this: if you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” Nikki Giovanni
Yes!! That’s it!!! I felt pretty silly that I didn’t figure this one out before. Maybe I never “got it” because I spend too much time on Pinterest looking up the Next Greatest Recipe for cheesy chicken enchiladas that will make my life complete, but I’d never been able to move past the guilt-ridden, slightly embarrassed feeling that I was a terrible fraud for not “Writing What I Know.” I set novels in cities I’ve never been to and in time periods I’ve not personally experienced, and I write characters who are nothing like me. (Thank goodness.) Well, all I can say is after reading the above quote, the way I write and the things I write began to make much more sense to me.
Writers write from empathy. Of course they do!! Does Nicholas Sparks know what it’s like to be a woman in love? Does Stephen King know what it’s like to be a vicious killer? Does Stephanie Meyer know what it’s like to be a sparkly vampire? Does Alan Bradley know what it’s like to be a snarky, precocious eleven-year old girl genius? Does Suzanne Collins know what it’s like to shoot another human being with a bow and arrow? I truly hope not, on all counts.
What these and all writers understand is the human condition. They know love in its many forms. They know fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, the threat of violence. They understand what it’s like to have dreams that are unfulfilled and still sought after, the desire for acceptance. They understand hope.
I can now breathe a sigh of relief and go right on creating characters who don’t live where I live, look like me or have the same opinions. Even better, I can make up a new world if I want to, or write about a place I’ve always wanted to go. Why? Because I’m a human being and I can create an entire universe using my imagination and my ability to empathize with others.
So…it’s okay for me to Google 17th century Japanese samurai, the city of Nice, France, advances in nanotechnology, or late 19th century body-snatching practices for something I’m writing. It’s okay for me, a soft-spoken woman, to create characters who are loud-mouthed and obnoxious. It’s okay for me to create male, female, white or black (or whatever race I want them to be) characters. It’s okay for me to write about people who lived millennia ago or eons in the future. It’s okay because I’ve give myself permission to create them. It’s okay because I’m a writer, and writers don’t have to “write what they know.”
I feel validated. Yay for Pinterest!