I’m always on the lookout for morsels of advice to inspire me to write. One such nugget that I keep coming across is to ‘write what you know’. I understand the philosophy behind this guidance. In essence, it says that a writer shouldn’t attempt to write in a genre or on a topic that they’re not familiar with. Their impetus will either fade due to a lack of interest, or they’ll produce something that doesn’t sound authentic.
The advice can be applied to real life. As a writer, I wouldn’t attempt to rewire my house; I’d leave it to a professional electrician, otherwise risk blowing myself up. Similarly, I would never stroll into a garden centre and start telling the staff how to look after their plants. Horticulture interests me so little that I have trouble keeping artificial plants from wilting.
So ‘write what you know’ makes sense, right? I would agree to a certain extent, but at the same time I find the guidance restrictive and unambitious. Let me explain why.
In my opinion, our society is chock full of “experts”. To become an expert, one must stay doing the same job for years on end, often within a large corporation that encourages and expects that inertia. I spoke more about this in my blog entry entitled ‘A New Chapter’, so I won’t get carried away here.
Suffice to say, so-called experts become so familiar with whatever their field of expertise is, that often complacency creeps in. Many of us need fresh challenges to stretch ourselves, to push ourselves to develop. If we stay within our respective comfort zones, if we only ever “write” what we’re absolutely sure that we know, then how can we develop?
The renowned playwright David Mamet says “You gotta stand being bad […], cos if you don’t, you’re never gonna write anything good.” That sounds so simple, but for me is one of the hardest things to grapple with. It’s far easier to never venture out of your comfort zone, and therefore minimise the risk of being “bad”.
‘Write what you know’ is certainly a snappy buzz phrase. I believe, however, that it should be laden with caveats. If something in life lies outside your comfort zone but you approach it half-heartedly, chances are you’ll fail. You’re unfamiliar with it, and therefore you’ll struggle. With enough discipline and enthusiasm, however, I believe there’s nothing wrong with trying your hand at something different.
Calling someone a jack-of-all-trades is often seen as an insult. The implication is that that person doesn’t specialise in anything, and therefore is not particularly good at any one thing. In short, they’re not an expert in any field. Personally, I believe it’s more advantageous to have a broad range of knowledge and some experience in many fields, than know all there is to know on one niche topic. In a writing context, a breadth of understanding of topics and genres can result in more sincere, layered writing.
In my opinion, it’s important to venture out of one’s comfort zone. That is where mistakes are lurking, and therefore where lessons can be learned. The important thing is not to tiptoe out, but to stride out with purpose and enthusiasm.