BAD WRITING ADVICE #8
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: How many times has this been written and rewritten, told and retold? The problem with the advice is inexperienced writers will think it means they have to write about their childhoods and what they had for dinner last week or their husband’s or wife’s new job. A writer who only writes about his or her life not only will most likely not have much to write about (sorry but most lives just aren’t that interesting) but more importantly he or she will make all the wrong decisions. They’ll be trying to stick to the truth of what happened and they will not allow the story to be told the way it needs to be told to be interesting and vivid.
I was in a graduate workshop once, and there was a retired policeman in the class. He wrote a story about policemen. Everyone in that workshop said the story didn’t ring true. The policeman said, “But it’s a true story.” He was arguing that it must ring true because it was true. But it doesn’t matter if something “happened” to a reader. A reader needs to be convinced on the page. The cop author picked the wrong details and didn’t show what he needed to show because he was wed to what actually happened.
Of course writers use their past to show emotional truths. They use events sometimes or things that happened to them. They definitely use ways they have felt in certain situations to create vivid emotions in scenes. BUT few writers (always exceptions) stick to a literal retelling in their fiction. It’s too confining.
A better way to think about what you should write about is “don’t write about what you cannot know”. But here’s the thing: you can know most things with research, which is pretty much just an Internet connection away. So that opens up what you can write about. More importantly, you can imagine most things so that really opens up what you can write about. You need to open up to allow yourself to imagine an original story and fresh situations.