For any of us who has taken the adage “Write what you know” as received wisdom, this contrarian opinion from P.J. O’Rourke should come like a refreshing shpritz of seltzer to the face:
“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?”
I’ve kept that quote in a Word file for a long time, and I have no idea where I found it. I’ve hung on to a tearsheet of “First Aid for Young Writers” by Willie Davis for even longer. Published in Writer’s Carousel, from the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the article expands on O’Rourke.
Here’s the argument for writing what you know, according to Davis: “Writing should sound genuine, and genuiness is a byproduct of knowing your subject matter. Therefore you should write what you know.”
The trouble, he says, is in that conclusion. It’s wrong. “The conclusion should read: know what you are writing about.”
Doing that takes research, which sounds like a drag, but which can be fun, “provided that you’re researching a subject that interests you.” And, Davis adds, “writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination.”
“It is important to remind young writers that good writing is generally bigger than the writer — that if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”
P.J. O’Rourke and Willie Davis convinced me. What do you think?
(BTW, I can’t find “First Aid for Young Writers” or Mr. Davis on the web.)