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Write what you know or don't?

As someone highly imaginative, I’ve always been confounded that people urge you to only “write what you know.” I grew up as a white kid in the South and the first play I wrote that got some real traction was produced in NYC several times throughout high school in various festivals and about two cleaning ladies in the 1950s doing an overnight cleaning shift. One was Black, the other white; it was a poignant play about class, their past, and finding common ground. What facilitated me writing that was a fascination with what that conversation would actually be like and digging in that world to try to find some structure to it–not that I had clearly ever (in any way) experienced that firsthand.

Granted, I was in high school, and I’ve moved on to write some pretty wild pieces that don’t have anything to do with my own direct experiences.

Always curious about this topic. What do you all think? Here’s an (older) Atlantic article urging us to discard the “write what you know” adage. Thoughts?

Thanks for sharing this! I’m with you in that I sometimes feel lost in a sea of bits and pieces of writing advice, and this one is a big topic. Should it deter male-identify writers from not writing female-identifying characters or vice versa? I think the scope of “what you know” can actually be so much greater than the literal daily attributes we’d imagine. There are some topics I’d just stay away from entirely because I’m not sure I’m best to handle them–but all in all, I believe in taking the plunge. Is that what you’re saying, Drew?

I just recently did a blog post about this. I don’t think L. Frank Baum ever went to OZ. I don’t think H. G. Wells ever met a Martian. Did C. S. Lewis really have a magic wardrobe? I don’t think so.
The use of the imagination enables us to create worlds that never were, but ones that people would love to visit, or not as in the case of Anthem or Brave New World.
I have given in slightly to this idea, however. I have moved my series character, John Pentgram, from Scotland to Central New Jersey. I felt I could create a more realistic world around the fantastic elements if Pentgram lived somewhere I’ve really been to.
As for Surela’s world of Vareima, it’s never existed, and never will. It won’t stop me from creating a rich and vibrant world for her.

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