Okay, I’m going to challenge a popular writing rule, one that I’ve always struggled with: “Write what you know.”
This is an interesting rule and I’ve heard a couple of different interpretations of it, usually centering around some sort of literal interpretation: use people you know, your own experiences, or your own feelings in your writing, to give it authenticity.
But what if you don’t need to do that in order to be authentic? What if your creativity will allow you to create your characters’ and their lives, regardless of how different those lives are from yours? And what if, when you do, you can still have them breathe authenticity?
Elif Shafak thinks this is not only possible, but absolutely doable. A Turkish woman, she received criticism from a literary critic who was disappointed that her book only had one Turkish character, and that not even a woman. She says she understood his critique: “He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.” Elif says that most writers feel this pressure – calling it identity politics, a whole other fascinating subject that she tackles beautifully – but that none feel it more than a woman from the Muslim world. These writers are expected to write the stories of Muslim women, particularly the unhappy ones.
But she says that, “I might write about a Muslim woman in one novel, and perhaps it will be a very happy story, and in my next book I might write about a handsome, gay professor in Norway. As long as it comes from our hearts, we can write about anything and everything.”
She goes on to ask, “Why is it that in Creative Writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is, ‘Write what you know’? Perhaps that’s not the write way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about.”
Yes! I agree. How could we write about Martians or Hobbits, let alone about someone living in a culture we’ve never experienced if we only write what we know? And how could I write the story of a teenager living many centuries in the future, in a flooded city with technology, laws, and restrictions that I will never know, if I only write what I do know?
You can watch Elif Shafak’s thought-provoking TED talk below or here.