Write What You Don't Know
I have since learned to take every writing advice with an enormous grain of salt, (which is why I am hesitant to dole my own out). But a few years ago, when I was much less sure about my skill, I would actively seek it out and apply other authors’ words of wisdom with a dedication that can only be described as religious. Unsurprisingly, my writing did not miraculously improve. I was flummoxed at how conflicting (and sometimes downright vague) some of these suggestions could be. I began to truly like my own writing when I accepted that the only rule is that there are no rules. Some of the best, most original books I’ve ever read have challenged and upended the notions many writers take as gospel (the Monomyth, showing not telling, starting stories with the weather etc.). In all fairness, many of these suggestions and guidelines can be helpful, depending on who needs them and how they are incorporated. But I, more often than not, was left feeling deeply self-conscious.
One such advice was the elusive “write what you know”. Perhaps I took it too literally, but I was immediately under the impression that if something had not happened directly to me, I had no right to write about it. I felt like I could never accurately portray the life of a protagonist who was not, in some way, like me, which was a frustrating notion. No writer wants to be told that they cannot express the multitude of worlds and universes in their heads. Perhaps this is why, very early on, I found myself drawn to Science-fiction and Fantasy: it would be impossible to offend with depictions of worlds and populations that did not exist.
Gradually, however, I not only became aware that in almost every way I was a minority, but that my experiences were very rarely being represented in Western popular culture, let alone in literature; when they were, it was in offensive and/or completely inaccurate ways. This lack of representation is very isolating for a child, because you begin to think that what you have to say does not matter, and that there are no others like you.
It was only much later that I realized how lucky I truly was: those who are excluded from stories and narratives that are usually given a platform experience things in a parallel manner. We see things from the perspective of those who often benefit from representation, and from our own, the one that is rarely and/or erroneously shown. We, very early on, learn how not to portray people’s lives, because it has been done to us so many times. We, very early on, learn how to write what we don’t know, because it is being shown to us more loudly than what we do. We, very early on, learn how to write about people and things that are different from us without being offensive or shortsighted, having felt the brunt of that very thing all our lives.
Writers, inherently, are observant and possess the tools to walk in the shoes of whoever they choose. It is less about what one knows than about how one writes what one knows. For example: my multicultural background has not only given me invaluable insight on the notions of perspective, otherness and ambivalence, I have also had the advantage of drinking in the respective histories of three vibrant continents of the world. This includes the better parts, as well as the less glamorous ones.
I often come across books set in one of the three that are obviously very well researched: places and historical events are spot-on. But it becomes evident, from the way the story is told, that the author has not set foot in either of these regions: Americans tend to romanticize France, the French tend to stereotype Africa at large and the Senegalese tend to glamorize the United States. I believe that a story can come to life when authors speak to people from places they have never been, and are unafraid to represent the ugly, as much as the exquisite. A white Parisian will have a wildly different experience from a black Parisian, for example, but both are valid points of view.
The same applies to events as well. Nothing frustrates me more, than to see mental illness represented in offensive, hurtful, and completely skewed ways. Trauma (sexual assault, mental illness, racism, family dysfunction…) is too often treated like a plot point to advance a story or make a character more interesting, rather than a delicate and important issue that deserves to be told tactfully and respectfully: therein lies the heart of the issue, for many writers.
Thus, this is what I’ve learned. For fear of being labeled as insensitive or ignorant, many are hesitant to delve into writing stories about things that have not happened to them. This, more than anything, is why I believe that “write what you know” is misleading, at best — at worst, it is detrimental. It is the equivalent of speaking only to those who look like us, or else taking an interest solely in what we’ve read/watched/listened to in the past. I think that stories that come from an authentic place (not a sensationalist one, not a condescending one), and whose subject matter has been researched objectively (the good, the bad, the ugly) can be tackled by those talented writers who dare take the challenge.
In other words: writers are not meant to play it safe: stories should stun, irritate, agonize and capsize, and this can only happen when we give voice to experiences that are different from ours. This can only be done, however, when we have our intentions in the right place, and treat said experiences like precious gifts from our friends: gently, and with genuine affection.