All of the ideas I’ve ever had for a novel have one thing in common: they all bear some resemblance to my life.
When it comes to writing, I’ve always been drawn to plots and characters that in some way reflect my own experiences. I somewhat arrogantly wanted to convey my own thoughts and feelings and passions to the reader, as if my experiences were more valid than theirs. I believed that by drawing on my own life, my writing would be more truthful and therefore better.
Consciously o not, I’d been holding onto the advice ingrained in so many of us from a young age: “Write what you know.”
It never crossed my mind that there might be a better approach until I discovered a recurring pattern amongst a number of successful authors. Whilst they all naturally had slightly different approaches to writing, their collective refusal to follow the supposed golden rule has brought them enormous success.
This realization saved me a lot of time (and potentially terribly-written books.) Spanning various genres, backgrounds, and generations, here are five brilliant authors who dispel the age-old advice, and whose approaches could help you to improve your own writing.
How would someone else react to your experiences? — Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s reputation and legacy speak volumes as to her skill as a writer and her impact on literature. Her voice is daring, heartbreaking, and challenges a wealth of beliefs. In all its complexity, her writing is truly one-of-a-kind.
Recounting her time as a lecturer at Princeton, Morrison told her creative writing students to ignore everything to do with writing what they knew. Instead, she suggested they imagine somebody they don’t know — “what about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris?”
Following this approach doesn’t mean that your experiences are of no use to you as a writer, merely that you should avoid directly recounting them. Instead, utilize them to approach your story from a new angle — for instance, if you’ve always lived in one country, visualize a character who moves to that country having never been there, and who is unable to speak the native language. What would they notice, and how would they feel?
It’s also important not to get too caught up in portraying an accurate image of a place. Stories are stories — if your audience wanted an in-depth detailed account of a particular location, they’d buy a travel guide. What’s more important is the atmosphere you create, and whether you can enter a reader into it or not.
Don’t trap yourself inside your characters — Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
Whenever anybody asks me for a book recommendation, I immediately suggest one of Adichie’s novels.
Adichie writes about conflict, Nigerian culture, and perceptions of race in the U.S. and Africa, but most importantly she writes about real life. Her characters are so fully-formed that you feel as if you know them — I find myself reacting to the events of their lives, in the same way, I would to that of my close friends. I have never cared about characters more than in Adichie’s writing.
In order to create such believable and fleshed-out characters, Adichie doesn’t pour herself into them, but actively separates herself from them. In an interview with Random House, she explained:
“I generally never model a major character after myself. I think that would stifle the creative spark; I need to be able to see my characters as being apart from me, creations that I can observe, because only then can I let them grow and free them to take risks and free myself to let them take those risks.”
By trapping too much of yourself inside of your characters, you risk limiting their capabilities. It becomes much harder to picture your characters doing certain things that you would never do, or placing them in situations that you have no understanding of. In this context, enforcing the notion of ‘write what you know’ too strongly will only limit yourself, your characters, and your writing.
Never prioritize real life over imagination — Philip Pullman
The first fantasy author on this list, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was a childhood staple for myself and many others. Lyra’s alternate yet tangible universe is historical, magical, and full of secrets.
In an interview with the Guardian, Pullman’s response to whether he ever draws upon his own experience in his writing was as follows:
“Yes, I suppose I must do; but they’re changed. People often forget that there’s such a thing as imagination. What imagination does is to take the things we know and play with them so they’re not always recognisable.”
The importance of imagination cannot be underestimated for writers of any genre, but particularly fantasy. Readers turn to transfixing, magical worlds as a form of escapism. Pullman would not have been able to tell his story in such a believable and immersive way for the reader had he not exploited his imagination more than his lived experiences. It sounds obvious, but his imagination is what makes his novels such effective tools for escapism. Elements of real life are recognizable, but barely.
Explore interesting relationships, not characters — Kazuo Ishiguro
Unknown to many, Ishiguro’s greatest strength as a writer lies in his versatility. Alongside eight published novels, he has penned numerous short stories, screenplays, and even song lyrics. Unafraid to blend genres, his writing is direct, easy to read, and a sharp reminder of the value and short nature of our existence.
In agreement with the previous authors on this list, Ishiguro claims that “‘write about what you know’ is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.” Along a similar vein to Pullman, Ishiguro rejects the age-old advice on the basis of imagination.
From my own reading experience, the most memorable aspect of Ishiguro’s novels is not the characters themselves but the relationships between them. There are several unknown truths swirling underneath the surface that the reader is never truly allowed to understand. By deliberately fashioning relationships that are strange and unknown to the reader, Ishiguro draws the reader in. It’s strange, they don’t recognize it, and they want to know more.
As a reader, we want to read about things, people, and situations that are unfamiliar. Why don’t we try writing about things that are unfamiliar too?
I don’t care about what you know — what are you interested in? — C. S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia and the man who wrote them need no introduction. Author of more than thirty books, C. S. Lewis is one of the most successful authors of the twentieth century. A decorated scholar as well as a writer, he spent much of his life teaching at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien.
When it comes to writing strategies, Lewis suggested the following:
“Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about . . .)”
The keyword here is ‘interest.’ Lewis recommends that you write not necessarily about what you know, but about what you find interesting. Whether that means writing about your real-life or creating an extraordinary made-up world, your best work will come from excitement at what you’re creating. Perhaps this is the message ‘write what you know’ always intended to promote — that to be a successful writer, you need only write about what interests you, whatever that may be.
What all of these authors have in common — alongside their success, committed readership, and fantastic writing — is that they never stop challenging themselves as writers.
Writing solely about what you know will put a cap not only on the things you can write about but also on the quality of your writing. By relying on my lived experiences as my main source material, I sabotaged my own fiction writing for so long. If I had tried to cram as much of myself as possible into one book, it would have been terribly written.
The purpose of rejecting ‘write what you know’ is not to go against the status quo in an attempt to stand out. It’s valuable, tried-and-tested advice that will improve your own writing. In order to maintain a long and interesting career as a writer, separate yourself from your work and rely on your imagination more than your day-t