If there’s one cliché about writing that divides opinion more than any other, it’s ‘write what you know’.
Actually, that might not be true – it’s probably ‘show, not tell’ or perhaps ‘there are seven basic plots’, but ‘write what you know’ is the one that seems to be exercising the blogosphere at the moment.
Write what you know.
Four little words. Harmless, surely? Innocuous, inoffensive. Yet, with increasing frequency, this teasing phrase is condemned as the mantra of generic writing courses, the source of pedestrian writing or even the death-knell of the imagination.
And yet… while words are powerful things, I’m not convinced this particular phrase packs quite so much punch.
If you think it means:
- Write only about what is already familiar
- Write only about what has happened to you
- Write only about your own background, family life, tastes and proclivities
Then, yes, this might be irritatingly prescriptive, though not at all if your prose makes me weep with grateful wonder.
If, on the other hand, it means:
- Write what you feel
- Write what you believe, or imagine
- Write about your dreams or your nightmares
- Write to discover and perhaps understand
Then I’d say (if you squint at it a little, or maybe write it upside down), ‘write what you know’ starts to look pretty much the same as ‘write what you don’t know’. What matters is what we convey to the reader. What matters, surely, is whether it is interesting. Am I changed by it? Do I recognise myself or see others illuminated? Will it linger?
Now, what’s that thing about ‘show, not tell’?