Seems like nowadays I’m getting ideas from any and everywhere. Whether I’m having a bland conversation with a coworker or daydreaming in line at Starbucks, inspiration can strike at any time. I am so loving it.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Since I was young I had the idea drilled into me that great writers always write what they know. That’s how you get into readers’ minds and linger. That’s how you’re able to speak — or rather, write — with authority. This is a lesson I carried over into my first novel, What A Person Wants.
It took me over 8 years to get that bad boy finished, edited, and published, and it almost didn’t happen. It started off as a fiction novel and damn near ended up as a half-assed autobiography. My characters seemed familiar to my close circle of friends because a part of them had left an impression on me, which eventually left an impression on the page. I wrote what I knew a little too well.
Thankfully, through the editing process I was able to bring my novel back to the realm of fiction but I can’t deny the ghost-like traces of some of my closest friends in my characters. It’s like I tried to perform an exorcism but instead of completely banishing the spirit, it just decided to lay low. Which is fine. A couple people know it’s there, but since it’s not causing havoc, we all just smile, occasionally crack wise, or pretend it never existed.
I wrote what I knew.
It’s not a bad thing. Luckily, I had permission to use the likeliness of my buddies, but it could have gone sour. I recognize that. I’ve seen what happens when “writing what you know” goes wrong, and let me tell you, I am not about that life.
Yet, I find myself wondering if writers have to take that route. Why can’t we write what we don’t know? After all, at some point we all knew nothing. Through experience, life, and plain old research, we learned. We grew. Why can’t that approach be taken to writing?
I decided to push myself and write something I knew nothing about: hip hop reviews. Well, that might be a bit harsh. I had some knowledge of the genre, but I had bias. Generally speaking, it’s not my cup of tea. And to add more gasoline to the fire, the artists I chose to review were either artists I didn’t like or artists I knew only in passing. However, I acknowledged my bias and shortcomings, did my research, opened my mind, and put in the time. And you know what? Not only did I discover new music I enjoyed from an artist I didn’t originally care for, but I also learned a lot about another artist and his ideals about the current social climate of this country. I found these things interesting. That’s what I poured into my piece. That’s what I used as the basis for my articles.
The more I learned, so did my readers.
If there was a moral to this story, it would be this: Writing what you know is awesome. Honestly, it does make it easier to pour more of yourself into whatever it is you’re writing. However, you can’t be afraid to step out of the box and try something new. You can’t afford to hinder yourself. Explore. Research. Take new angles on old controversies. Prove to the world that you’re not a one-trick pony. And with whatever you do choose to write about, be passionate.
Write on, my brothers and sisters. Write on.