Don’t write what you know Part II
I subscribe to an online thing, Advice for Writers, that comes to my email daily. It’s great. I recommend it to anyone who is writing or wants to write. Or may will write someday, maybe even tomorrow.
A recent post, dated 17 Dec 2014, is from Nikki Giovanni. She says: Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.
You’ve probably heard the advice about writing what you know. How very limiting. Think of all the books that could never be written if that were the way to go: Stephen Crane was never in a battle yet wrote The Red Badge of Courage, Charlotte Bronte was never a governess before she wrote Jane Eyre, Jules Verne never left terra firma before he wrote From The Earth To The Moon. And what about all those vampire books – bet those authors never even saw one, much less, ahem, kissed one.
People ask writers all the time about where they get their ideas. Well, you can get ideas from the newspaper, from riding the bus, or from sitting behind a one-eyed, one-legged man at church. But the real answer is that our ideas come from imagining what it feels like to be a one-eyed, one-legged man, or someone who ran over a pedestrian because he was drunk, or someone who owns slaves but thinks he’s a good guy. It’s a willingness to engage the imagination in empathizing with people whose lives are not like our own.
To be specific and personal, I have never been a slave, being a white woman born in the United States in the 20th century. Pretty privileged person, on the whole. But I have written four books (critically acclaimed, as they say) about slavery. The author’s aim is to take the reader along with her in feeling what it is like to be other than they are. So thank you, Ms. Giovanni, for putting this thought so succinctly and convincingly. And thanks to Advice to Writers, too.