You know that old bit of writing advice: write what you know. Yeah, that’s the one. The one that makes fantasy writers slam their heads against brick walls and every teen writer scream “No! I won’t do it!”
I hate this advice. Or, more accurately, I hate the usual implication of this piece of advice: write only what appears in your narrow field of vision as you see it and pray it makes an interesting novel.
Well, that sounds kinda stupid when I put it that way, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what we often hear when this council reaches our ears?
But what if we took this piece of advice and made it useful again? What if we turned in on its head and started applying it in a way that grew writing skills and challenged preconceptions?
What if we really did write what we know?
Let me rewind to some context behind this train of thought before I hit upon my meaning; I have been writing a letter every single week to keep in touch with distant friends and family members. It’s a good way to keep in touch with the people who might otherwise scarcely know me. This practice is a brutal exercise in discipline, as I have written over 250 letters over the last few years, and only missed two or three weeks. Lemme tell ya, after the ten letters, I started to wonder exactly what it was about my life I thought I could squeak three paragraphs out of every week. After a hundred, I started penciling things in on Saturday so that I would have something to write about on Sunday.
Fast forward to the point: I have learned a few things. First, writing as a discipline will surprise you because there are some days when you dragged yourself to a keyboard and smashed your face into it to try to write your letter and for the first time in a month and a half, an answer actually comes into the inbox saying how special it was. Just because you don’t feel inspired doesn’t mean you can’t fake it. Second, writing only what you know becomes repetitive really, really fast if you don’t shake it up. It forces you to look at the mundane in a different light, to notice the nuanced shades of topics, to write beautifully about something simple (sometimes just to turn a pair of sentences into a paragraph and move on with the rest of this terrible idea to keep writing letters and sending them into the void).
Maybe writing what you know isn’t so bad.
Maybe writing what you know makes you appreciate what you have.
Now, please excuse me, I’m going to go do some plotting for my NaNo novel in which a 1000-year-old amnesiac Viking makes friends with an FBI-consulting B&B owner and they start dealing with the problems of a small town together before the problems of his storied past come back to bite them both.
Because that isn’t remotely close to anything I know. ;)