We’ve all gotten this piece of advice at least once before: “write what you know.” On the surface, it’s not the worst slice of writing advice you’re ever going to get. First starting out, writing what’s familiar to us is how we begin finding our voice, familiarizing ourselves with our style and learning, essentially, how to write a story.
That’s all fine early on. But as we mature and writing becomes like an organ (we can’t function without it), we need to—dare we take this route? Yes—exercise it.
What happens to your heart if you just sit around all day, every day? Basically, eventually, it fails.
So does your ability to craft good stories, if you don’t work to maintain and refine it.
What’s the best way to suffer creative failure? Well, writing what you know, and only what you know, of course.
What happens when we get too cozy with the easy, the familiar, the safe?
Here are the consequences.
We give ourselves permission to be lazy
Somewhere, somehow, there has risen a belief that doing research, writing outside our expertise, spending just as much time learning as we do writing isn’t healthy for our creativity. We’ve been convinced writing “what we know” is the most effective way to convince our audience we know what we’re doing and they can trust our credibility. No Googling required. Right?
Over time we’ve misinterpreted the idea that we should base our stories on ideas we hold dear to our hearts. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can only base stories, characters and themes off of things that are familiar to us. There’s a big difference between basing a story entirely off our lives and taking an original idea and applying new, well-researched, often unfamiliar themes to create a new, exciting and fresh perspective on something we’ve all heard, read and experienced a thousand times before.
We lock our creativity in a cage
Creativity is supposed to be freeing, exhilarating and spontaneous. Yes, writers do make things up on the spot, make up words, worlds, cultures. We do a lot of things without bothering to look anything up or ask an “expert.” But what happens when that’s all we do, when the same author writes based off her limited amount of experiences (for each of us can only have so many worthy of a good story) and creates the same characters, worlds, storylines over and over and over again?
New ideas may seem like they come out of nowhere, but there’s always something that coaxes them out of the depths. Looking things up, learning something new, expanding your knowledge base, that’s how new ideas, the really good ones, come about. Going beyond what you know allows your own creativity to grow and thrive. If you keep your mind at the same level, never letting it grow, your stories will become formulated, and once there’s a template, you’ve officially killed the diversity of your ideas.
We let ourselves get comfortable
Part of the challenge, and thrill, of making up our own stories is teaching ourselves how to write outside our comfort zones. Writing “uncomfortably” means writing those scenes we’re afraid to write; “going there” when we’re not sure we’re ready. Bringing to the surface those truths everyone else keeps too concealed between the lines.
Never let yourself fall into a literary rhythm. How do we get caught in this trap? By sticking with what we know. By never daring to be uncomfortable. Let’s say small-town life is what you know best. Sorry Nicholas Sparks, but I need to drag you in here for a second. Not every story you write has to, or should, take place in a small southern town where everyone knows everyone.
Dare to write about characters who live in big cities, in different places around the world. Don’t know anything about big cities or different places around the world? Research. Travel, if you can. Get out there. Do something. For the sake of your creativity and your writing and maybe hopefully eventually your future career.
Your heart is meant to beat. Your creativity is meant to thrive. Don’t stick with the everyday routines that aren’t doing anything for your stories. Be adventurous, even if that means spending a few hours reading articles, watching documentaries. Let your mind wander where it never has before. Be terrified. Look at what you’ve just written, that page you want so much to delete—and don’t.
Start with what you know. Then dare to write what you don’t.
It will become almost like an addiction, but a healthy one. The only consequence of being addicted to writing, we suppose, is having too many stories to keep track of all at once.
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.