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Author Patrick S. Tomlinson (THE ARK) Challenges the Old Adage “Write What You Know”

patricktomlinsonPatrick S. Tomlinson lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a menagerie of houseplants in varying levels of health, a Mustang, and a Triumph motorcycle bought specifically to embarrass and infuriate Harley riders. When not writing sci-fi and fantasy novels and short stories, Patrick is busy developing his other passion for writing and performing stand-up comedy in the Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago scenes.

“Write What You Know” is Wrong

by Patrick Tomlinson

Being a writer is like being on a diet; you’re sure to get a lot of advice from a lot of well-meaning people, and only some of it is going to be any good. I’ve found that the trick is in the sorting. There’s a particular bit of wisdom that’s been passed around so many times among aspiring writers and authors that it’s become axiomatic.

Write what you know.

The undercurrent here is to enable yourself to write genuine characters, you should stick close to the shores of your own life experience. Stray too far, and your readers will sense your inauthenticity and descend on you like a frenzy of starving sharks, tearing holes in your characters and plots until the whole ship of your work sinks to the cold depths.

What a pernicious load of crap. Look, if I’d stuck to writing what I know, my debut novel would be about selling Medicare Advantage plans to the elderly and trying to reason with a crazy, emotionally-manipulative ex-wife. Want to read about that, anybody? Yeah, me neither.

I’m not trying to discount the value of incorporating lived experiences into your writing. It adds spice that lets the reader know you’re coming from a place of honesty and helps to build trust. However, limiting your storytelling to only those things you’ve personally experienced is a massive error that shrinks your horizons. And in sci-fi and fantasy especially, where your imagination can span all of time and space, it’s an incredibly restrictive sentiment that deprives your readers of the full breadth of the worlds waiting inside you.

We’re living in an interesting time in our genre. Much to the chagrin of the various incarnations of the Puppies, modern readers, (and by extension agents, publishers, and editors) appreciate work that encompasses a wide range of viewpoints and a variety of character backgrounds. It would be nearly impossible for any one of us as authors to have actually lived through the struggles of all of the groups, minorities, orientations, etc that we may be tasked with voicing over the course of our careers. The ability to convincingly and sympathetically write “the other” is going to be an increasingly valuable commodity in a marketplace whose explosive growth can be traced largely to expanding representation and inclusion of once marginalized groups.

So forget “Write what you know.” It’s bullshit. Instead, I say we flip the axiom on its head. Know what you write. I mean this as a challenge to work outside yourself. Actively seek out new experiences that will inform you of new, diverse viewpoints. Go to a gay bar. Attend an MLK day parade. Check out a pow wow put on by local native peoples. Hell, go to a Tea Party rally and see if you can get a grip on what those troglodytes are on about.

Explore the incredible range of culture available to you in your own backyard. Engage with new kinds of people. Do your research. Find ways to empathize with people and lifestyles you’ve never considered before. There is beauty and inspiration to be found everywhere you look.

Then comes the hard part. Once you’ve gone out and sponged up as much as you can, it’s time to sit down and write what you didn’t know. This will not be a comfortable or linear process. You will stumble. Your beta readers will misread your intentions and you will feel like an asshole. You’ll have to rewrite it hard. I know, it’s happened to me. But it’s part of the process.

When you’ve finished, your work will be more colorful. More nuanced. More diverse. More complete. To hell with writing what you know, that’s for grade school book reports. You’re a writer. Your job is to create people, societies, worlds, and universes out of whole cloth. Universes no one knew existed until you sat down and pounded them out on your keyboard. That is what we do. So go out there and chase experiences down. Tackle them. Wring every little bit of inspiration out of them that you can.

Know what you write, then push beyond it to where no one has ever been before.

2 Comments on Author Patrick S. Tomlinson (THE ARK) Challenges the Old Adage “Write What You Know”

  1. That phrase has always bothered me. I love your new take on it. Sounds like Jack London’s motto. 😀

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Mark Stephenson // November 3, 2015 at 9:46 pm //

    Well said and well written. I don’t know how the hell “write what you know” equips you to write a story about a cyborg traveling FTL to Procyon with a two-meter-tall amphibian that speaks with a vaguely Australian accent acting as co-pilot. Of course, I just made that up as an impromptu hypothetical … then again, I wonder…

    Also, this line was worth the entire essay. “Much to the chagrin of the various incarnations of the Puppies…” Maybe “write what you know” is why so much of “military SF” is so repetitive and derivative in a predictably hoo-RAH! kind of way.

    Thanks, Patrick. I think I will scare up a copy of “The Ark.”

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