There’s a piece of writing advice that has always bothered me. And I’ve heard it frequently enough to always be bothered by it.
“Write what you know.”
It’s a fair piece of advice, I’ll give it that. But it’s also absolute crap. Yes, as writers, we need to be an authority on whatever we write. We have to own our words and make readers believe them. But, I’ll tell you, if I only wrote what I knew, you’d be seeing a whole lot about a shy, quiet kid that lived in a small town and had virtually no friends. And played a lot of video games and read books and comics.
Write what you know is only good advice if you have experiences in life. A portion, no matter how small, of what we write contains pieces of ourselves. Even a complete work of fiction. But as I’ve mentioned before, writing advice is not one-size-fits-all. Writing is fluid, understandably, because language is fluid. The real trick is to write what you don’t know in a manner that makes it appear as if you do know.
Writers are professional liars. I think I actually wrote a poem about that called “Bullshit Artist.” Maybe I’ll try to find it later. Anyway—
It’s our job to transport the reader, to inform them, or to mislead them. To entertain. It’s called fiction for a reason. Some of my poetry is personal. Some isn’t. It is always important to keep the author and the speaker separate. Very often, the two are very different and not related. Of course, bits of us make it into everything we write. But the trick is to write about something I don’t know, that isn’t personal, but to make it personal. Because if something is personal, it’s relatable. And readers want to relate.
We all want to know that we aren’t alone. That others share the same feelings, fears, dreams, and hopes that we do. Sometimes that requires a happy ending. Sometimes it requires an absolute dose of dismal reality. Sometimes it requires no resolution or answers at all. When a poem challenges the reader, that is when they become invested in it. They reread it. They digest it. Good writing calls for multiple readings.
I still don’t write what I know very often. I’m an adult now, but not much has changed. Few friends, introverted, play a lot of video games. I write a lot about loss, hauntings, betrayal. Things I’ve little experience with. Every poem that I write, I try to capture and portray emotion. I think each poem should have some kind of emotional impact, whether profound or not.
A peek behind the curtain—the poem “Liquefaction” was written about a friend that had just suffered the loss of a child. Words fail. So how do you put that in words? Describe the feeling, the emotion. Write. “Horizon,” on the other hand, was a deeply personal poem. I wrote that after we had to say goodbye to our dog, Rascal. He lost his battle against cancer.
As you can see, once again, advice is contradictory. I don’t like “write what you know,” but sometimes you do. Because it works. But sometimes you don’t. At the heart of all of this, simply write. If you aren’t sure where to start, then start with what you do know. Work your way from there. As you get more comfortable, start writing about what you don’t know. Do both. Just write.