Thursday, April 26, 2012

Writing outside your experiences

One of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers is, "write what you know." It makes sense – understanding something, having experienced it, can give a sense of reality and authenticity to a situation or a story.

Still, in the greater scheme of things, one person's experience is rather limited. So what do you do when you want to write about something new?

Bear with me, because this is going to be a bit circuitous.

I’m a big fan of NBC's singing competition The Voice. Personally, I'm rooting for Lindsey to win.

She's badass and unique and all sorts of creative. My favorite performance of hers so far was her duet during the battle rounds, where she and Lee Koch sang Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box.

From time to time, contestants on the show (including Lindsey) have complained that they don't like a song choice because they don't have an emotional connection to it. They do have a point – when a singer really feels a song, it can be a stunning performance. However, I can't quite buy it.

The other singer in the above video, Lee, initially had trouble with the song. Nirvana is right up Lindsey's alley, but Lee has been more of a folk rocker. But when he mentions to Christina Agiulera that he can't quite connect with the song, she tells him something interesting: Those lyrics meant something particular to Kurt Cobain when he wrote them. What you have to do is find your own meaning. Make them matter to you.

Taking the other side 

When I was in college, I took a Middle Eastern Studies class. It fulfilled my ethnic studies requirement – and it was very apropos, as the Iraq war was just about to break out. It was a great class, mostly focusing on religion and womens' issues. Not much of the class sticks in my mind – except for one assignment.

The assignment was to take part in a debate. My team was assigned women's issues, particularly the debate about Muslim women who want to wear headscarves. Somewhat to my dismay, I was assigned the position of defending the wearing of a headscarf. Seemed like a pretty obvious symbol of male oppression to me. But since I didn't feel too strongly about the issue (and being the overachiever that I am) I did the research and came up with the arguments.

Still, they were just facts on a page – until I started acting them out in class (we presented the mock debate to the other students). In saying the words, in acting out the position… it became real to me. I found myself understanding an issue that I'd had only the vaguest of opinions on before. Even today, I still wince every time I hear about France's ban on headscarves, because I created that small connection with the issue.

Back to the original question

So I suppose I do agree with that frequent advice. We should write what we know. But I no longer think that as limiting. I see it as a challenge.

So I share the challenge with you: find something interesting that you don't know too much about. But don't just read about it – really put yourself in the position. College classes willing to listen to your debate might be few and far between, but that' s what writer friends are for. Argue a different perspective. Find a strange song, or a strange personality you've never understood before. Dig deep into it, examine it from all angles until it becomes something you understand. Then make into your own.

That's where authenticity comes from. 


  1. Excellent advice.

    I once critiqued a manuscript that had a POV of a Republican politician which was very shallow and stereotypical. It was very obvious that the writer was a hard-core Democrat. And I thought, "really, this is how you think Republicans think?"

    I think the great challenge and reward of writing comes from trying to understand perspectives that are different than our own. This is the way we as writers can grow as people. The small ripple in us that changes because of what we have written.

  2. I love this!

    I remember an assignment in college where we had to write about abortion from both sides of the issue, and if the teacher could tell what our actual opinion was, we would be docked points. Pretty eye-opening stuff.

    This applies in so many other ways too. I've always wished I could write a great sword fight. I probably don't have to become a fencing champion to do it, but it takes a lot more knowledge than I've got. It would be so fun to get some sword fighting experience. The advice to write what I know can be a very liberating thing!

  3. Excellent points. Some things I'm just never going to be an expert in, or experience at all - like a space dog-fight or something. But you're so right that it's important to expand on what we do know and be open to all sides of experiences.


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