An oft-repeated rule for writers is “write what you know.” Most of us accept this on faith because it seems to make sense. Among other things, the better you know a subject, the more details will be at your command and the more likely it will be that you will establish authority on the page that will inspire the reader’s confidence. Our most credible writers of war stories—Tim O’Brien comes to mind—are veterans themselves. (Happy Veterans’ Day!) They know what they’re talking about, and it shows up in their work.
However, one of America’s great writers of the Twentieth Century took a different angle on this rule. I had the privilege of studying with Grace Paley at a little-known writers’ conference in Mexico called Under the Volcano. I was in awe of Paley, despite the fact that she was this tiny, somewhat frail, extremely generous and kind, grandmotherly woman. And she was also full of good advice, including the debunking of some “rules” of writing.
It’s not, “write what you know,” she insisted, it’s “write what you don’t know about what you know.” Otherwise, it’s boring. For you and the reader. What’s the point of writing, I think she meant, if you’re just going to explore known territory. Stretch. Reach. Push beyond and take some risks.
And sometimes, knowing a subject too well prevents the writer from really seeing it.
For example, I once wrote a short story set in a coffee shop. In a workshop, I was told by the leader—a famous novelist—that the setting was too vague, and that the problem was that I hadn’t fully imagined the place myself, so of course I couldn’t render it on the page so that readers could see it. In fact, though, the opposite was true, and the famous novelist realized this as soon as he’d made his original pronouncement. The coffee shop of the story was based on a coffee shop I knew well and frequented. The reason that it didn’t appear clearly on the page was that I knew it too well, and was no longer really seeing it. I had an image of it in my head that subconsciously I believed everyone else could see, too. What I needed to do was to really see the coffee shop—the real one or an imagined one—in order to describe it effectively. I needed to discover things about this coffee shop that I didn’t know, or had overlooked, and that’s what I needed to write.
I’m currently writing a novel set in Singapore. I know Singapore. I lived there for ten years. So I’m able to get a lot of what I need for this story just from my own experience. But then I’ll push beyond what I already know to discover some of the history of the country—which is more interesting than modern readers might imagine—and to “drill down,” so to speak, to discover things beneath the surface that I hadn’t seen before. But there’s more to this exploration, because of the character traits I’m writing about—but I’ll save that topic for another day.
For another take on this issue, see Bret Anthony Johnston's essay from The Atlantic: Don't Write What You Know.