First False Rule of Writing

The biggest falsehood told to new writers is the phrase, “Write what you know.” If I was to follow that maxim, you would read nothing but boring tomes about small town, small minded middle-class Canadians – or rather you wouldn’t be reading them, since such books would bore even me to tears. If writers didn’t stretch their literary wings past the realms of what we know or have experienced, over half of the great and not so great literature of today wouldn’t exist.

I very much doubt Stephanie Meyers ever met a vampire, let alone fell in love with one. I doubt Isaac Asimov traveled to distant planets or knew any humanoid robots, good or bad. And I certainly hope no one thinks Thomas Harris ever dined on anyone’s body parts. Or that Douglas Adams ever had dinner at the restaurant at the end of the universe (though it sounded like fun) And does anyone believe that J.K Rowlings met a wizard or played a game of Quidditch. If she did, I’d like to hear that story!

Los Angeles Public Library 5th Street, Los Angeles

I’ve never killed anyone, brutally or otherwise. I’ve never even seen a dead body outside of a funeral home. But I write about death all the time. I’m not a cop, I’m not a medical examiner, or a serial rapist/murderer, but I write about all of those things. My books are full of dead and dismembered corpses and the people who pursue them.

Pershing Square, Los Angeles

My point? The world would be a much drier and less colorful place if writers had to experience something before they could write about it. I’ve never killed anybody, but I know I’ve had moments where I wished someone would die – have even gone so far as to savor a fantasy about it, but I know I’d never do it. I imagine most people have felt similar urgings. We are all human, we share emotions and needs that cross racial, sexual and geographic bounds. Somethings are universal, some are cultural. I can explore the universal ones in many forms and with a wide open, exploring mind. The cultural ones are less open to me. I’m quite sure I couldn’t write about a Hindu untouchable kid growing up in Calcutta and I wouldn’t try, though Arthur Golden didn’t feel those restrictions when he wrote the critically acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha, so I suppose I could make the attempt.

Venice Beach Boardwalk

I also make sure to know as much as I can about whatever I’m writing about. This has included trips to Los Angeles, where these pictures were taken.

The rule shouldn’t be “Write what you know,” it should be “Write what you like”. Mostly I write what I like and what I want to read. I think that’s a better maxim than “Write what you know.” A whole lot more fun, too.

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One Response to First False Rule of Writing

  1. Holly says:

    I agree with our pres. Writing should be a process which rewards even the author. However, maybe if we put a gentle twist on the old saying “write what you know” we could agree. If the know be what we research well and learn from than the ‘Know’ is less boring. So write that story about an untouchable in Calcutta but do your research first.

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