Thursday, September 19, 2013

"I Want to Write What I Know"

An It's Complicated! — Authentic Voices guest post by author, Bil Wright.

“Write what you know!” Isn’t that what English teachers, writing instructors and even guest authors encourage beginning writers to do? Many young writers, eager to begin to unravel the mystery of how to tell a story “successfully” hold onto this advice as a foundation for their writing careers whether it be professionally, academically or writing for their own enjoyment. Certainly this adage provides a certain comfort level; writing about what is familiar almost guarantees, if nothing else, a level of credibility and even authenticity, doesn’t it? And certainly, for any writer wanting to make a deep connection with his/her reader, authenticity is a quality that is highly desirable. So then does that mean I should stay away from writing about topics or characters, indeed people who are less familiar to me? Perhaps I should not include them in my computer created world, lest I fall short of making them totally believable to my reader. Perhaps I should compile a list so that I’m careful to avoid these topics and characters as I proceed to tell my stories.

For example, as a heterosexual white, middle class male, what would I know about a Latina immigrant from Santo Domingo with three young children? How could I possibly describe accurately any detail of her life or the lives of her children or husband? How could I capture in words her emotional response to having her native tongue dismissed as meaningless jibberish, her family’s customs treated with condescending smirks? Nope, better stay away from her, for sure.

Or, as a Caribbean born woman with staunch Catholic beliefs, why would I spend time or precious page space creating a gay or lesbian character as I write my novel about students in a public junior high school in New York City? First, I don’t personally know any gay or lesbian adults or adolescents, they’re simply not a part of my world. And even if I did know one in a casual way—let’s say my neighbor had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, why would it be necessary to include that in my novel? After all, I don’t write novels for gay and lesbian audiences! I write for, well, the AVERAGE reader! Aren’t there writers who specialize in stories about gays and lesbians? Wouldn’t it be wiser for me to leave that to the experts in that field?

And besides, wouldn’t it take a great deal of time, energy and research to figure out how to write about Latinos or Gays and Lesbians or even people with physical disabilities so that my writing sounded like I was WRITING WHAT I KNOW? I mean, I have to admit, I simply don’t know those people, or if I do, I don’t really notice them. They’re not a part of my world, my everyday existence. 

What’s that? Yes, I said I live in New York City. Yes, of course, I feel a responsibility as a writer to reflect the world around me. But, what I’m telling you is that, assuming I'm a heterosexual white male, I only tend to see other white people. I mean other than some of my co-workers, or one or two of my daughters’ friends. And yes, my son, Andy, did have a teacher who was Puerto Rican last year. But all of that is beside the point. What would you have me do? Ask her how she feels having to discourage Puerto Rican children from speaking Spanish in class? Would you want me to ask my daughter, Grace, why she feels it necessary to be best friends with a girl who insists on being an “out” lesbian in high school when high school is hard enough as it is? Or better yet, would you have me invite the girl to dinner so I could get to know her better myself, just so I could include a young lesbian in my novel? And what, pray tell, would I gain from that? 

Oh, I see. You want me to REALLY reflect the world as it is, even if it takes tedious hours of research, or going out of “my way” socially or even spiritually. No! My goal, the goal I’ve had since I first took a creative writing class in seventh grade is to WRITE WHAT I KNOW. It gives me a sense of safety, reassurance, comfortability and distance from anything that threatens to cause tremors to my everyday existence. And I don’t care if it leaves out the whole rest of the world. ISN’T IT POSSIBLE TO BE A GOOD WRITER, EVEN WITH BLINDERS, AND WRITE WHAT I KNOW? 

Bil Wright has won the American Library Association's Stonewall Award and the Lambda Literary Award for his novel, Putting Make-up on the Fat Boy and is also the author of four other novels including the re-released Sunday You Learn How to Box.


  1. And, all the people in school who said, "write what you know" didn't actually hear the limiting irony to the imagination in the phrase...

  2. Bil Wright has hit the bullseye. It is so true. Now i look back, teachers and writers have always taught me to write what I know and be creative with it. How can I do that without offending other cultures, race, ethics, religious, and so on. I know basics about every thing but not to the point where i can write a whole book about it and thats what I know. Thats not what they meant. They should have educated us in a better way in order not to offend any person who reads "what you know". It is important to do some research and be able to have that full confidence in your story. Now it makes you think, you took those advice from well respected writers, are their stories true? Do they really research to make sure they got the right information or did they just simply write what they know?

  3. I encourage my authors to connect to their personal community. To spend time knowing them inside and out. Trying to gather info on all aspects of their worlds but at the same time to see the cooperation and greater community and the collective. In that way you can work from the inside first, and then it might mean stepping out of a few comfort zones and when that happens it welcomes all into an exploration of a literary space and a people not necessarily made up of just the people we know.