“Write what you know” is standard advice in creative writing programs. While earning my B.A. in English, I experimented by writing about ballroom dancing and piano (things I knew) as well as pregnancy and war (things I didn’t). My most successful stories featured what I knew: I described ballroom dance competitions with more plausibility than a helivac scene in Eastern Europe.
So what I’m about to say might sound counterintuitive: forget about writing what you know.
My novel follows a dirt biker struggling with gender identity and anger issues in early high school. When I started this project, I thought I’d breeze through it; I had my motorcycle license, so I already understood the basics (shifting, braking, safety, etc.). Riding a dirt bike was probably the same as riding a motorcycle, except off-road. No biggie. I had this.
Fun fact: nearly everything in my first draft was factually incorrect. Yes biggie.
At this point, I could have scrapped the story. With so many errors, a second draft meant starting from scratch. Instead, I googled dirt bike stats and motocross tracks. I emailed the racing organization NETRA, which connected me with rider Taylor Johnston. I met her after a local hare scramble (a dirt bike race through the woods) and she let me ask a few hundred questions. I read as many books about dirt bikes as I could find, ranging from The Hardy Boys to Leigh Hutton’s Rev Girl.
Instead of scrapping a story I loved, I researched competitive and social dirt biking until it became something I knew. I decided to learn.
“Write what you know” is great advice, especially for beginners who don’t need the added pressure of research on top of learning how to write effectively. This advice, though, can be limiting. Attempting to write a book — or succeeding at it — involves smashing limitations, not adhering to them. I cannot allow my infinitely small amount of knowledge to cap my writing; I don’t want to remain stuck in ONLY what I currently know.
As of November 2015, I’m approaching the final stages of writing my novel. Even if my story never leaves the slush pile, I love it. Thanks to my research, I put forth my absolute best work. Who can ask for more than that?
So here’s my addendum to this classic piece of writing advice: Write what you know. Research the hell out of what you don’t.
What experiences have you had with this advice? Do you find it limiting, helpful, or perhaps both?