Thursday, December 6, 2007

Write What You Know?

One of the most popular pieces of advice given to writers is: Write what you know.

My question to you is this: Are we supposed to take this advice literally?

I seriously doubt it. If we only wrote what we already know, we’d have very limited options for characters and plots. We’d never grow as writers (or people) because we’d never step outside our knowledge base to learn new things to write in new areas. In my case, I’d have some very strange characters and, quite possibly, some strange stories as well. My knowledge of people and the world is colored by autism. Everything I know has been processed through an autistic brain and there’s a good chance the initial perceptions would be considered weird by a “normal” person. I know this affects my writing. I’ve been known to give characters inappropriate responses to situations; dialogue that sounds perfectly natural to me sounds stilted or formal to others; and I’ve asked many times how people would react in a certain situation because I have no clue.

If I only wrote what I already know, my writing wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as the instructions on a box of toothpicks (yes, there is such a thing). My characters would fall flat because the emotional response wouldn’t be what most people expect; the dialogue wouldn’t always make sense to anyone else, though another autistic might get it; and there would be huge, seemingly random leaps in logic. It would be an editor’s nightmare.

So I research, I ask questions, I make up what sounds like a normal person. But I don’t already know these things when I start. I’ve written two autistic main characters based on what I know. It’s freeing to write an autistic and the way they perceive the world because it shows others how I perceive it. Unfortunately, to make it comprehensible for the non-autistic world, I have to tone down the autism during the rewrite.

Back to the original question: Should you literally write what you know?

Yes, by all means use the knowledge and experiences stored in your brain. But don’t limit yourself to that. Instead of just writing what you already know, try to follow this piece of advice: Write what you can learn.

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