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Your Creative Writing Teacher Was Wrong

Write what you know Mark Twain courtesy of Bing images

This is probably one of the first things you will ever hear out of a writing teacher’s mouth. (This, and “Show, don’t tell.”) It is also probably the most terrible quote in the history of literary instruction.

This is because people take it literally.

One main agreement by many authors is that when you actually get down to writing a story or piece of writing is that you should only write about what you actually have experienced or know about. Nick Sanders

Of course, if you were Mark Twain – living in a slave state during the Civil War, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi – then maybe this would work. But when your life is comprised of classes, homework, a boring job, marital spats, paying bills and/or changing diapers, just the thought about writing what you know could put you to sleep.

There are only three reasons anyone would support taking the saying “Write what you know” literally:

1) They want it to be easy. Don’t want to waste your time doing research? Don’t have good resources? Got an approaching deadline? No problem! Just write what you know! Instant material with minimum effort!

2) They want to play it safe. We’ve all been at that place: “Was cotton an everyday fabric in the Wild West? Could you actually jump over a motion-detecting laser without setting off the alarm? Would someone from the 1970s use the phrase ‘Yo dawg’?” You’re not sure. You are sure, however, that your readers will catch the little gaps in your knowledge and POOF! your credibility will be out the window. Better stick to writing what you know.

3) They are missing the point. Yes, writing what you know might convince readers of your authenticity, sell you as an authority on a subject, and make your book believable (all this, of course, so long as you avoid boring everyone to death). But that’s not the point of writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing is for self-expression and personal fulfillment. Anything that follows – publication, money, a devout audience – is just a bonus.

I don’t know about you, but I write to escape the monotony of my everyday life. The last thing I want is to bring that monotony onto the page. I want to know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Fly an airplane. Train-hop. Shoot a crossbow. See a ghost. I have never done any of these things. Nor do I necessarily have previous, similar experiences from which I can draw.

“Writing what you know” is kind of like saying: “Go on an adventure – but just don’t leave the block, ok?” I’m writing what I don’t know. And that’s the whole point.

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last  instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a  labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?P. J. O’Rourke

Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words. Valerie Sherwood

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Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Writing

 

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