Writers are often told to ‘write what you know’, but how much of this is actually true? As part of our Spring 2019 season, Maria Thomas will be running a creative writing workshop for writers on creating fiction beyond personal experience…
‘Creative writing is like being given a blank cheque and an open-ended plane ticket. When this is the case, why limit yourself to your own back garden when there’s a whole world out there (and waiting inside your head) to explore? You may find your true interest as a writer lies in subjects closer to home, but without giving yourself licence to travel, how can you be sure of this? Taking the risk to write what you don’t know can also make you a stronger writer of familiar subjects and settings too; it’s fun and it might just offer new and exciting perspectives.
It’s not easy to write what you don’t know. First you have to give yourself permission to explore freely, to generate those rough first drafts, and to admit that you’re writing from a place of deep uncertainty. Some writers find those things a real challenge.
Cultural appropriation is also an important issue that deserves consideration. You can avoid it in your writing by reading widely, doing appropriate research, and by making sure your plots are unique and your characters are well-rounded. Listen to constructive feedback from a wide range of readers and pay attention to the conversations that affect your work.
Most importantly, avoid stereotype at all costs (unless you intend to satirise it), because stereotype makes characters and plots interchangeable and thus dispensable. And, if you can dispense with something in a story, then you are suggesting it holds no value.
Always think: what am I trying to say with this story? Are my characters flat or tokenistic? Is my world-building stale? How might a person from this background/culture/ethnicity/community react if they read my interpretation? Just asking yourself the tough questions and thinking about the answers can help you navigate the pitfalls of writing what you don’t know.
The world needs diverse stories because it is diverse. It needs more writers from all kinds of backgrounds to push the boundaries of their own creativity, and to encourage readers to do the same. If we engage respectfully with what we don’t know in our writing we can move beyond mere representation to a place where fiction can inspire genuine connection. That sounds like a worthy endeavour to me.’