“Write what you know” is one of the first things writers learn to unlearn. Lots of common writing advice out there isn’t actually so spectacular, and even the good advice doesn’t work all the time. Dismantling bad habits and faulty preconceptions is as much a part of becoming a better writer than building up your skills. It’s certainly harder.
To be honest, though, I don’t know if I ever really had to unlearn “write what you know.” I was never interested in writing what I knew in the first place. Case in point: in third grade, I wrote a story for Writing Workshop called “Lilly and the Blinding Light.” It was, theoretically, a mystery, although it failed at being so on every conceivable level. (There was no solving of anything. The criminal just kind of revealed himself for no reason. Also his threatening note read like one of those superstitious chain emails — “if you don’t do X, Y bad thing will happen because magic and also I said so” — although I don’t think I really had much exposure to those as a third grader, so apparently I came up with that level of ridiculousness all by myself.) As a character, however, Lilly was important for one profound reason: she wasn’t at all like me.
There is a scene that takes place in Lilly’s kitchen, where she asks for the same sandwich she eats every day, which in hindsight I blatantly ripped off from Harriet the Spy. However, I made sure that the food Lilly asked for was food I myself did not like. I remember writing this and being thrilled with the fact that this character was different from me, that she was her own person who I had made up. This summer, I discovered a sequel to this story, which I have no recollection of writing whatsoever, in which Lilly is a raging jerk to her stepfather. Here again, she was different: I do not have a stepfather, and if I did, I would like to think I wouldn’t be so mean to him for no reason. Lilly apologizes for her behavior at the end, so I must have deliberately chosen to have her act poorly. Having a character make mistakes I had not made and liking things I did not like and having triumphs I had not had — well, that’s what made writing fun!
As I got older and better at plots (marginally) (I mean eventually I get there but first drafts still have echoes of Lilly in them), I also began to realize that it was important that I not always write what I know, because that was how I learned things. For example, Beidrica in story is my basically my polar opposite. When it comes to how we interact with the world, we have almost nothing in common. In fact, a lot of the things she does and believes are things that I hope to dismantle in my own society. But through writing her, I developed an insight into the terror and guilt of having to turn your back on a dogma that has guided your life. I am relieved that I was raised in a way that ensured I would never have to face that particular brand of terror and guilt. I think it is important that I can now understand it, though, not because these emotions excuse my character’s or any real world people’s actions, but because they must be acknowledged in order for there to be any change. I sincerely hope one day story and its sequels will be part of the public discourse on acknowledging the difficulty and also the necessity of rejecting harmful jingoism and exceptionalism. If someday it is, then it will be because I did not write what I knew.
Another reason it has been important that I do not always write what I know is that I obviously want to represent many different types of people in my fiction. Diversity in YA and children’s lit is very important to me, and frankly there are plenty of characters out there who already match my demographics. We really don’t need many more of them. Of course, while I am not writing what I personally know from my own experiences, I am trying, to the best of my ability, to absorb and apply the knowledge of other writers and theorists and thinkers through the ages who have expressed their own thoughts about race, gender, disability, sexuality, and even trauma. Not writing what you know isn’t the same as inventing unrealistic experiences of important matters. It’s a lot of work to not write what you know, and it should be. (I think telling a worthwhile story should be hard, and that part of why “write what you know” doesn’t work is because it’s too easy.)
So there’s all that.
But then sometimes I find myself kind of, well, writing what I know. It even happened once with Beidrica. I don’t even remember how many drafts ago, but I had written a scene where Beidrica is just heaping responsibilities, including literally impossible ones, onto her shoulders, thinking about how she couldn’t possibly let herself off the hook for things going wrong in the world — even when she had absolutely no control over them. I meant to show how heavy the burden of her ideology was becoming, but then I took a step back and started laughing. We may not have arrived at that feeling for the same reason, but for once I knew exactly what Beidrica felt because I had felt it too.
I wonder, does everyone react to personal epiphanies by letting out an unhinged laugh and saying, “okay fine yeah I GET IT”?
With werewolf story, not all of my write what you know moments have been so accidental. Millie and I are very different, but we share a lot of the same frustrations. Central to the entire story is the question of “how could I possibly make anything any better”? Millie has a lot of reasons to ask this that don’t match my reasons, but the longing and doubt inherent in the question are things that we share. As a result, there are some scenes that, when my loved ones finally read them, will probably make them laugh and say “YEAH YOU WROTE THIS.” But I also hope that those scenes will really resonate with people. And I don’t want them to resonate to a greater extent than any of the parts where I’m not writing what I know, per se — I hope everything feels true and right — but the flipside of the ease of writing what you know is the vulnerability of it.
Especially because I don’t have the answer to that question yet. But maybe if I can figure it out for Millie, then I will also know it for myself.