Write What You Know, But Remember What You Don’t

person holding ballpoint pen writing on notebookEarly in a writer’s education, they are told this maxim: Write what you know. Later, when a writer finds Twitter, they learn more about what that means. Don’t write about people or cultures that you aren’t a part of (or, if you do, research extensively, and then research some more). Don’t coopt a story from a minority group you’re not a part of, which can take away a story from a minority voice and lead to damaging stereotypes. Write your own experience rather than pushing that experience onto others. 

This gets a little trickier for fantasy and science-fiction writers. Of course, none of us (that I know of…?) are androids or aliens or elves, and yet plenty of writers have made compelling and emotional stories based on experiences that they can and never will have. Some do it by drawing parallels between fantasy equivalents and real-world distinctions and problems, and some writers use history or imagination to craft something unique and uniquely real, even if it has dragons, too. 

(Because dragons mean something, damn it! I shout, somewhat insane, as I add dragons to everything I write.)

But one thing that’s got me thinking is when writers write about sexual identity. Does one have to be gay to write a gay character convincingly? It certainly should help. Especially in this moment of #ownvoices, there is a call for LGBTQ+ characters written by LGBTQ+ people. Obviously, this is something I want to see expanded. I want all readers to be able to connect to characters that make them feel seen, special, and alive.

And yet, please allow me one slight tangent before I ask a question. 

I was recently reading the Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson (which another blogger wrote about here!). The main character is a lesbian, and Dickinson, as far as my limited research shows, identifies as a man. I tried to look up his sexuality to “prove” to myself that he could write a convincing lesbian, but then I stopped. Why was I prying into his personal life when I could simply look at his writing? Baru, our main girl, is conflicted and damaged and absolutely brilliant and dangerously flawed, and her love carries all those layers. Her feelings seem authentic and read powerfully, and I’m not the only one who thinks that. His AMA on Reddit holds comments by self-reported “real lesbians” who found Baru to be convincing and interesting and thoughtfully created. 

So I stopped trying to pry into Dickinson’s real life and asked myself this question: must a queer-identifying writer “come out” in order to prove that they have the right to write about queer characters?

There are a myriad of reasons that people might choose not to come out. Maybe they’re intensely private. Maybe they have family members who wouldn’t approve. These days, it’s getting easier and easier for people to be themselves fully and honestly, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone. Do we, as readers, demand that sacrifice of privacy from authors? Should we? Do we not get enough of the writer, woven into the text and characters, all formed from their mind? If a character can touch a reader’s heartstrings, does it matter?

I’m ultimately unsure what is the right answer. I want authentic, diverse characters, and I wantwoman covering her face with white book writers from marginalized groups to have a platform to write about their experiences (and their imaginary experiences). But I don’t want writers to have to reveal the details of their relationships and relationship histories, or there to be a call for them to bear their desires to the crowd just so they “are allowed” to write about a thing. This can call into question not only the privacy of the writer but of their partners, and outside scrutiny of a relationship is rarely accurate or helpful. 

Maybe there’s some middle ground. A writer who wants to keep their sexual identity under wraps could perhaps tell their agent or their editor, though writing a query letter can be hard enough without needing to explain something as intimate as one’s identity. But even then, a writer could be called out by readers and asked to reveal something about themselves that they didn’t intend to reveal. 

But maybe that’s the risk of writing anything. Every word written and read draws us a little closer toward the writer’s heart. If they’re writing what they know, then the risk of learning about the person behind the story grows immeasurably.

I’d love to see what you think about this issue in the comments. I don’t have a clear answer, and I don’t know if there is one. I hope that we can someday live in a world where people don’t have to fear coming out or revealing that side of themselves, but change takes time. Until then, write what you know and remember what you don’t.

One thought

  1. I think you’re absolutely wrong about this. Anyone should be able to write about anything. Real diversity is diversity of thought. It’s fiction. Sometimes writing other skins colors or other sexualities helps a writer deal with trauma. No one will ever know what another person goes through, ever. Period. A mother will never know everything their child experiences. A spouse or a partner won’t either. Writing outside of one’s one personal situations can be cathartic and we support THAT kind of writing.
    Like you mentioned, you were combing through a writer’s private to prove he was writing about ‘the right things’. Writing doesn’t have right or wrong. If you censor a writer based on their physical attributes that would be facism. Write anything and everything, even if it’s out of your wheelhouse. Those are the stories that will help bridge the gaps and bring people together.

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