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The Myth of “Write What You Know”

05/04/2011

Almost every time I talk to a group of aspiring writers, I hear someone tell them how important it is to “write what you know.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always tempted to stand up like a character in an old courtroom drama and say, “I OBJECT!” 

Write what you know? Write what I know? If I wrote what I knew, I wouldn’t be writing thrillers. Believe it or not, I have never been a clairvoyant, a military lawyer (or any kind of lawyer), a manufacturing CEO or even a high-performing technology salesman. I’ve never been a Special Forces operative, a hired killer, or a teenaged girl.

Sure, I do research. I do a lot of research, which you can read more about here. I’ll go to great lengths to get the details right; did you see my post over at Criminal Element about being sealed in a coffin as part of the research for BURIED SECRETS? (More about that later; stay tuned in the weeks ahead.) But research is only part of the job, and excessive research does seem to support a belief in writing what you know.

The truth is, the novelist’s job is to write what we don’t know. Imagination is not only the author’s job, but the author’s privilege. It’s also the reason most of us got into this work to begin with. 

If I had started out writing what I knew, I’d have written very short stories about a kid who lived in upstate New York and wanted to be a cartoonist. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking those stories. I love Philip Roth’s novels, and John Cheever’s, and Sue Miller’s, and Tom Perrotta’s, and all those authors who make art out of everyday life. But the thing was, that wasn’t what I wanted my life to be. 

I’m still not admitting that I daydreamed in class – okay, maybe a little. When I did, though, it wasn’t about the details of my own life. What would the point of that have been? No, I spent that time in my imagination traveling with Dave and Chuck to the Mushroom Planet, when I was younger, or playing baccarat with James Bond and catching trains with George Smiley, when I was older. I apologize to the teachers who suspected me of daydreaming, but my time was better spent than they realized. What is fiction writing, after all, but focused, purposeful daydreaming on paper?

Over the course of ten novels (11, if you count the one I’m finishing now), research has given me the practical details of so many lives very different from my own. More important, however, I’ve spent countless hours imagining what it was like to be them. I’ll never be a hedge fund manager, or a jet engineer, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I don’t need to be. I’ve already imagined those lives — and feel lucky to have this one, which has enough space for all of them.

To aspiring writers, then, I say, don’t write what you know. Write what you imagine. Write what inspires you. Write the story you want to tell, and fill in the details later. Research is fun, but it shouldn’t interfere with the momentum of your story, in either the reading or the writing. What you can’t find out, you can always make up. That’s why they call it “fiction.”