Write (beyond) what you know

Many writers firmly believe in what they’ve been hearing for years: Write what you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I find that students who are just starting to write often find it difficult to branch out, to assert their authority as writers beyond their own experiences. At this point I’ll usually point to Melanie Rae Thon’s brilliant story “Little White Sister,” which not only an amazing read but an important lesson to writers: Write beyond what you know.

In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Thon talks about her decision to write from the perspective of a black male in first person:

“Those voices of censorship become ridiculous. The extrapolation of that kind of thinking is that you can’t write as a child, you can’t write as an old person, you can’t write as somebody of the opposite sex. I move into my material intuitively and if I’m paying attention to that, if the things that I’m writing are things I feel I must understand, then I have a right to explore them. I have a need to explore them and ultimately a duty to do so.”

In the same way reading opens up our understanding of the world around us, writing from perspectives beyond our own (and in the process, understanding them) not only makes us better writers but better human beings. We all need to get outside our own lives once in a while.

A great opinion on this topic is this post on Erika Dreifus’s awesome blog, Practicing Writing, in which she discusses writing from the POV of a mother even though she’s not a mother. After being critiqued in workshops  — not for her writing but for her non-motherhood — she makes the very good point that good writing has nothing to do with the writer’s personal life but with the authenticity of what’s on the page. She writes: “… my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience.”

Unless you’re writing memoir, try to write beyond what you know. You’ll probably find that you know far more than you think — and you’ll probably also have to do a lot of research (which always enlightening anyway). The more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll challenge your readers — in the best possible way.