Should you write what you know?

notesIn which my life experiences are too boring for a novel

I’m not going to beat around the bush, here. I’m a white, middle-class mum with a part-time job and three kids who are equally adorable and frustrating. I have a cat. I read books, moan about how little time I get to spend with my partner, worry about money and dream about doing something exciting with my life. I have an invisible disability or two, true, and my straight-passing household doesn’t mean I’M straight, but is that enough for novel fuel?

Apparently, books about people like me are fairly popular. I gather I should be having a mental breakdown, an affair, a feud with the over-achieving parent governor mum at one of the kids’ schools, or something along those lines.

But I read for escapism, and I don’t want to read about people with lives like mine. I read fantasy and science fiction in all its glorious forms. That’s what I want to write, too. So writing what I know… isn’t exactly an option. I’ve seen the phrase adapted to “write what you read” and that seems a much better fit.

When you really SHOULD write what you know

Then we come to the spectre of diversity. For every person who’s passionate about increasing the range of representation in fiction, there’s another who cries about it being forced, and a third who looks at this very real need and sees a trend they can jump on to promote their own work.

IMG_20181216_172225_539For me, this is where the sage old writing advice comes into its own. You should not be writing a marginalised experience unless you know that experience. And I mean, know it intimately, inside-out in all its messy nuance, not have read a few left-leaning newspaper articles about it and follow a couple of activists on Twitter. You need to have lived it.

You might get away with having lived it by proxy – the parent of a disabled child would probably be able to write pretty authentically about disability – but it’s not guaranteed. Trust me, I’ve seen some very bad examples. And in any case, if you truly care about the marginalised community you’re considering writing about, why would you want to take their seats at the table away from them?

That’s not to say you shouldn’t include marginalised characters in your writing. Of course you should! They should be everywhere, because that is how the world works and because the more we get used to seeing POC, disabled, fat, queer, neurodiverse etc. characters casually existing in our fiction, the better. As long as you do your research; bad, stereotypical rep can be just as harmful as no rep at all.

But if you’re thinking of writing ABOUT a marginalised existence, about what it is to be trans, or autistic, or indigenous and you can’t apply that same label to yourself… maybe think again. Maybe consider that you are never going to capture that experience as authentically as it deserves. Whatever you write will be coloured by your misconceptions and (probably) privileged viewpoint. Step back, and leave it to the people who live it.

The nuance of who knows what

You can probably take a dozen different authors and readers and get two dozen different shades of opinion. Just as a one example, the debate about who writes and reads queer romance, especially m/m, is an ongoing issue. There’s a history of mostly cis, mostly white women fetishising those relationships – does that mean all women authors should steer clear, no matter how well done the story? What about queer women? And non-binary authors? Where do queer POC fit into this argument?

No, I don’t have any answers to those thorny issues. And I’m not going to start up that debate again here. It simply illustrates how one little piece of advice can become very complicated when you start looking at different angles. This is only my take on it.

But I will say again, whatever it is you’re thinking of writing, be sure you read it. Read widely, in and around your genre, from a range of voices, and you’re at least starting on the right track.

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