Write What You Don't Know
by third year hana rehman
I was told: “Write what you know,” and it scared me. The internet told me this, and TED Talks, and teachers. It scared me into huddling safely in my own bubble of life experience. It scared me away from the far more difficult and rewarding task of exploration. Though perhaps it did not intend to be, it acted as a warning not to stray. I now know that all this impedes imagination, creativity, and the invaluable act of stepping outside of oneself. So I’m going to explain how not to be intimidated by this advice, and why we writers should give “write what you know” a permanent footnote.
Here is how not to be afraid of writing what you do not know:
Ignore the fear of venturing into a perspective that is not yours, of taking something that doesn’t belong to you. Don’t exploit another narrative for your own gain, but don’t be held back by the fear of doing so. Don’t exploit, but do explore. Conduct research and have conversations with those who are different from you. You will get things wrong. You will start over and try again. You will get a little closer each time, perhaps to accuracy or perhaps just closer to a better understanding of a place or experience or human.
Think of it like stepping into someone’s shoes—do it lovingly, with compassion, and with a desire for understanding.
Ignore the “rules” telling you to stick to firsthand knowledge. These kinds of “rules” are things that people hear and pile in heaps without questioning them. There are no hard and fast rules in storytelling. “Write what you know” came from a good place but needs ancillary notes. They should read: what this means is to make sure your writing stems from your own truth, your own emotional core. What this does not mean is that you are confined to your own time, location, age, and specific experiences. It does not mean that you should be afraid to break out of those things and tackle something new.
In short: write your own experiences, of course, but don’t feel confined by them.
This all applies to things you consume as well as things you create. Branch out. Substitute “write” in the title of this article for watch, read, or play. Difference is increasingly being more and more celebrated. Make sure you are part of that celebration. Take advantage of it by expanding your knowledge, your worldview, your empathy.
Finally, write anything and everything that comes to mind. After you’re finished, then you can ask yourself if it feels inauthentic or inaccurate and revise from there. You can ask others to check you, or you can simply keep trying. My point is to not be afraid to try. Don’t be limited by hackneyed writing “rules” or advice without questioning why you should let them restrict you at all.
So write what you know.*
*(And what you don’t.)