Should you ‘Write about what you know’?
As an eager scribbling kid, being given that classic bit of advice, ‘write about what you knew’, felt to me like one of those rules that adults invented to keep children in their place. I didn’t want to write about school and squabbles with brothers and sisters and trying to avoid parents’ washing-up rosters. I didn’t even want to write about flying across the world to visit our family back in Europe; didn’t want to write about family secrets. Nobody else would be interested, I figured. Heck, I wasn’t interested myself. I wanted to write about princesses and curses, criminal masterminds and dashing young musketeers, magic wands and priceless jewels handed down through royal generations. I wanted to write about the world in my head, the enchanted, exciting world of my voracious reading, that made dull routine disappear and the limitations of being a child vanish in a puff of fairy dust. So I did just that. I ignored the advice, and my writing went at its own pace and my writing worlds passed through childhood fairyland and adventure to teenage love tragedy and myth, hoovering up every influence going, from Russian novels to Tintin, Celtic love poetry to Norse saga,. Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Moomintroll to Bilbo Baggins, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace to Great Expectations, along with just about everything else I could pick up as I wrote reams of poetry, short stories, comics, songs, and embarked finally at the age of 17 on a major undertaking – a huge fantasy novel which would take in as many of the world’s mythologies as possible, and feature characters who came from the four corners of the world. I filled two exercise books and then ran dry unable to finish, but nothing daunted went on with many more, and at last finished one. And then two. And then three, and finally I was taking the plunge and sending my darlings out into the wild seas of publishing, trying to find safe harbour..which eventually appeared on the horizon.
But the story of my writing career isn’t really what I’m writing about; it’s about the gradual realisation over the years that ‘write about what you know’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean write about your everyday life. ‘What you know’ can mean what you know in terms of your family history, the rich freight of story and event, of comedy and tragedy, carries in the wake of its life down the generations. It can mean what you know in terms of your reading, just as I’d first instinctively deduced as a kid; it can mean ‘what you know’ from observation and plain old nosiness. But most of all it means ‘what you know’ from the inside. Your emotional life. The song of your heart. Of your soul. The emotions you share with every other human on the planet—and the ones you don’t. ‘Write about what you know’ was about that emotional heart without which every literary work, in whatever genre and however elegantly written, means nothing. It was about being true to the heart—because only then could you reach other people. Only then could your characters really live and breathe. It didn’t matter if you were writing about broken marriages or broken kingdoms; about office bullies or Dark Lords; that was merely a choice, an inclination. But the emotions had to ring true, whatever world your characters came from. You and your readers might never live the life of a young prince unexpectedly elevated to the throne; but all of us understand what it’s like to be suddenly thrust in a situation we weren’t expecting. All of us can sympathise with the nerves and doubts and excitement. All of us can feel what it’s like on the inside, even if we don’t all reach the same conclusions about it. Even if we feel differently about these things. It still feels real, and that’s what counts.
No, ‘write about what you know’ wasn’t a restriction; it wasn’t a hobbling, as I’d thought it had been as a rebellious child — but I still had to reach that conclusion in my own pace, at my own time, and the way I’d got there had been enriching in itself.
So that’s what I know now — that ‘write about what you know’ is indeed good advice. It is, indeed, true. But just as the best writing is understood with the heart as much as the head, then that’s how that classic little aphorism should be understood. Don’t restrict yourself — let your imagination soar. But write about what you know — from the inside.