Writers are often advised to “write what you know.” The thinking goes that only by experiencing something yourself can you portray it
authentically. Here’s what I know:
1. A child’s need for a bathroom is inversely proportional to the distance from one.
2. If you want to discuss something really important with a man, hide the remote.
3. Never enter a swimming pool after a bunch of preschoolers have used it. The same goes for teenagers and your car.
If I had to write solely from personal experience, my novels would have all the excitement of a C-span budget hearing. I’m no Hemingway. I don’t run with the bulls. I type with my hand wrapped around one. Most writers I know are the same. We don’t write what we know so much as what we want to know. In my four published books, I’ve collectively written through the eyes of New York City firefighters, small town detectives, arsonists, high school students and undocumented day laborers. They’ve been of different faiths, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Some are men; some are women. Some don’t even speak English.
Don’t get me wrong—writing from personal experience can make a book feel richer, more nuanced and more self-assured. When you’ve walked a terrain, you instinctively know how the ground feels beneath your feet. You have the rock-hard assurance of truth to grab onto when you find yourself lost in the depths of a manuscript. But not every writer has a personal story to tell. And some stories would never find their way onto the page if they had to rely on an eyewitness to set them down. That’s where imagination comes in. And curiosity.
If you want to write outside your own experience, you shouldn’t feel intimidated about doing so. Still, there are some key things to consider:
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