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Don't Write What You Know: Go Hell-for-Leather Into the Unexplored

Atlin Merrick Natalie Conyer She Said/She Said

Don't write what you know | She Said/She Said
Natalie Conyer and Atlin Merrick share thoughts on writing, in their She Said/She Said series, entries alternating between Improbable Press and Clan Destine Press.

ATLIN: Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps!

That advice is offered often by the privileged, to those with far fewer advantages. Except here's the thing: the phrase was originally coined as an indictment, it was meant to show that it's impossible to pull yourself up by your own feet.

I feel it's the same with the absolutely bonkers advice of 'write what you know.'

That advice has led to copious "literature" by white English professors writing about white English professors bedding undergrads. I believe write what you know means instead to build from what you know.

I don't know what it's like to be a werewolf in love, but I do know about the fast thrumming of an excited heart, the giddiness of desire, the sense of freedom when I run. When I write I can weave these things I know into what I don't, so that a reader can understand my besotted wolf as she excitedly awaits her paramour.

Write what you know for me means reading about Deaf culture if I want to write about Deaf culture, it means asking Deaf people if I got it right. It does not mean stay away from telling diverse stories, it means being complicit in empowering the people whose stories I'm including.

Where does respect stop and censorship begin?
Stop Editing Your Book and Start Writing Rubbish
Does where you read colour your feelings for a story?

NATALIE: I agree with Atlin on this. ‘Write what you know’ has to be the worst advice ever given to an author because it denies the existence of the very thing that makes art, namely the ability to enter an unknown world and to bring that world to readers, viewers and listeners.

If we only wrote what we knew we wouldn’t have – off the top of my head – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the witches in Macbeth, and (god forbid) Game of Thrones. That’s not to say those works don’t draw on human experience but they exist because their creators went outside their own lives and into imagined realities.

I don’t deny that in some cases, meticulous research – even ‘being there’ – is crucial. Lots of crime fiction, for example, depends on realistically accurate writing. Still, how many crime novelists have bumped off anyone themselves?

I’d like to replace ‘write what you know’ with advice someone once gave me: ‘Write your dream. After you’ve written, check it. Research if you have to. Make sure you’ve got cultures and people right. Edit. But stay true to the dream.’

With that in mind, authors, I hereby give you leave to go hell for leather into the unexplored, the wild, the unknown. Can’t wait to read it.

Atlin Merrick is the publisher of Improbable Press, an imprint of Clan Destine Press. She's the author of The Night They Met. Natalie Conyer grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and now lives in Sydney. Her award-winning debut crime novel, Present Tense, is set in Cape Town.

Natalie Conyer's award-winning crime novel: Present Tense      The Night They Met by Atlin Merrick

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  • Kameo on

    I have been leery of writing from the perspective of folks with disabilities even though I have 35 years experience in special education. But that perspective is so rare in popular literature! If I see myself as a writer and I want to include the viewpoint of underrepresented people, then maybe what I can do is to include that viewpoint in what I’m writing.

    Be the change I wish to see?

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