Are you the type of writer who follows the old adage “Write what you know”? If you are, I hope you’re being very literal about it.
On the surface, writing what you know may seem like a pretty boring prospect. When I look at my own life: wake up, shower, pray, commute to work, interview patients, answer calls, send emails, commute home, eat, exercise, sleep, repeat… I see a list of monotony so boring I feel a yawn coming on. I’ve come to the conclusion that writing what you know only counts about those elements of your life that are unique.
Who are you? Dig deep and think for a few seconds before you answer that question.
When I wrote An Unproductive Woman several years ago, someone suggested to me that because AUW was set in Africa and the characters are Muslim that only Africans and Muslims would be interested in reading it. I never believed that. AUW confronts issues of family, life, death, hope, love, and faith, all of which are among the common threads that bind all human beings.
An Unproductive Woman is a work of literary fiction, and now almost 15 years later, my tastes and my preferred genre have changed considerably. Currently I have a great affinity for science fiction and dystopian literature. (The reasons why are a different post altogether.) My previous and current genres are definitely worlds apart, but one thing has not changed. I still write about characters that reflect, at least in part, my unique experience. And while to many, my experience and way of life may seem foreign, I fully believe that my readers will appreciate the richness they add to my stories.
A few months ago I submitted my short story entitled Concessions for critique. I received great advice and criticism, all of which has helped me shape the story into one that I am proud of. One of the comments that I received affirms my point.
“One thing I liked is the fact it’s from a non-western/Judeo-Christian perspective. I’m excited to see other cultures represented as main protagonists. And, on that note, I like how you presented that cultural perspective here.”
If you were to randomly gather together 100 people, you’d find that by virtue of the fact that we are all human beings, we all share some common traits. Fortunately, because a world of exact clones would be horrifyingly bland, you’d also find that despite these common attributes, it is our particular combinations that make each one of us unique. Those unique traits are the ones you should infuse your writing with.
Do I sense your doubt? I promise, you really do have unique traits and abilities.
Are you a 40 something year old father of three whose grown thick around the middle but who can still Windmill with the best of the b-boys?
Do you remember the lyrics to every song you’ve ever heard whether you want to or not?
Are you a practitioner of Confucianism, Islam, Mandaeism, or Samaritanism?
Can you speak a second language? Ojibwa, Hindi, Swahili?
Have you overcome and survived a serious illness or injury?
Use your unique qualities to build unique characters and situations. It’s still writing what you know, but based on the most extreme yet singular interpretation.
Now, let’s try again. Who are you?
(Originally guest-posted 06/2012 at http://yesterdaydaugher.blogspot.com/2012/06/write-what-you-know-guest-post-by.html)