The phrase does have it’s merits. It states that you can’t write what you don’t know, which makes sense. But the lesson you should take from it should not be to avoid what you don’t know, but to increase your knowledge until you do know it.
If you interpret the phrase as only writing what you know and what you have experienced then you are limiting yourself and the range of your stories. Besides, under that interpretation fantasy and science fiction could not be written because no one has ever experienced those situations. Instead you are limited to autobiographical and sometimes self indulgent stories. Perhaps you do in fact lead a thrilling life the demands to be told as a work of fiction, but I know that my life as a twenty-five year old aspiring screenwriter and youth programs supervisor in Nova Scotia is not boring but it certainly isn’t thrilling enough to need an autobiography. Instead you need to pull out the exciting parts and give them their own story.
Story is life streamlined.
Writing what you know should not be limited to your life. You can always learn more about another life. You can research another time in history, you can learn about another place. You can even learn about what has already been written on the subject in other stories. You can always learn more and increase what it is that you do know.
I am currently writing a short story where the protagonist and his family go to hell. I have obviously never been to hell, but I can still write about it. I can still learn about hell and about the interpretations that have already been made and then make my own version. So as long as I do my research, I will still be writing what I know.
Where I find the phrase is most important is when it comes to your emotional experiences. In this case, write what you know. Have you experienced every emotional situation? Of course not, do you need to? Of course not. But if you are writing about an emotion, you must have some way to tap into it and share it with the reader.
But once again you know more than you think. I may not have experienced a father being betrayed by his son, however I have a father and I can take those emotions and express them in this story. I also know the feeling of betrayal, so I can take that emotion and express it in this story. So even though I have not experienced the exact same emotional state, I can build it from the emotions I have experienced and create a truthful emotion to connect with the audience.
But you’ll find that there are many experience you cannot properly express and relate a story to. In that situation instead stick to what you know.
So to recap. It is flawed to think you know everything and can write anything. However, as I have stated, you know more than you think. You can research and learn more about the situation and you can take emotions from other experiences in your life and shape them into you story. So it’s not a matter of writing what you know, it’s learning what you don’t know.
So let’s rephrase it. “If you don’t know it, learn it.”
Those Forgotten has been accepted to the “Guerre des Flicks” People’s Choice voting for the 2012 YoungCuts Film Festival. So if you get a chance, check out the film and maybe even vote. There is however a subscription fee unless you have a film in the festival. But it’s a small price to pay to see a great collection of short films.