…Re-Assessing the Adage “Write What You Know”

Posted on May 31, 2008. Filed under: The Craft of Fiction | Tags: , , , |

I’ve had a quote on my mind all day, and it comes an interview between George Saunders and Israeli author Etgar Keret in PEN America, Issue #8.

Keret: The first thing they tell you when they teach you about the Holocaust is that if you were not there, then you are never going to understand…. But I have parents who went through the Holocaust and I know that you can communicate with it. When I was a young kid, my father said to me, “Of course you can understand what the Holocaust was like. You know what it means to be afraid, and you know what it means to be cold, and you know what it means to be hungry. I was much more afraid than you are, you ever were, you ever will be. And I was much hungrier and I was much colder. But I didn’t experience any emotion during those years that you do not know.” [emphasis mine]

To me, this quote gives breath and flesh to a great deal of what I’ve been thinking about the imaginative act of telling stories. Most fiction writers, at some point, have been told “write what you know.” But this often gets interpreted as a (self-) limitation, rather than an invitation to imagine the lives of others. The approach of Keret’s father allows us to “write what we know” by viewing our own emotions through a truly limitless kaleidoscope of the imagination. If we all know hunger, fear, and cold—if we all experience the fundamental human emotions—then we can, theoretically at least, imagine and render the experiences of any character that we imagine. 

Too often in the world of fiction, we are given the same line Keret was given about the Holocaust: “If you weren’t there, you can never understand.” It has become a kind of Political Correctness that prevents writers from rendering something that they can’t claim to know firsthand. Not Cuban? Then you can never understand a Cuban character, and therefore (implicitly) can’t write one. Not a woman? Then you can’t write a woman, either. But this approach does not serve The Muse, who wants us to imagine what is beyond ourselves. If we just write what we know in the limited sense of our sociocultural identities and our professions, then the world will end up with far too many novels about out-of-shape middle-aged people who stare at their computers too much for their own good. 

This limitation, I believe, is partially responsible for fiction being eclipsed by memoir in the public eye over the past decade. If fiction becomes limited to considerations of the self, then why bother reading it? Why not go with the genre that is all about considerations of the self? Thinking of “write what you know” not as a constraint, but as an invitation to explore the fundamental human emotions through the lives of imagined others, completely liberates that hackneyed piece of advice. Envy, love, hope and hopelessness—this is what we know. Allowing these things to play out in the lives of our characters is our craft. 


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