Writing Samples

Writing What You Don’t Know

[Originally posted on Book-It’s Blog.]

There’s this quote¹ about writing fiction that I love, attributed to author Joe Haldeman:

“Bad books on writing tell you to ‘Write What You Know,’ a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.”


[Calvin knows what’s up.]

The maxim of “write what you know” has its roots in solid practice—an author writing about things she has done, places he’s been, feelings they’ve had or topics they’ve studied, will naturally bring a deeper sort of understanding to their work. They’ll be able to communicate with more truth and immediacy what their characters are going through when they and their characters have a shared experience.

As Haldeman points out, though, if the only thing people who have devoted their lives to writing can write about is what they know, then we end up with an awful lot of novels that are just about writers and writers’ lives. (I mean, a lot of writers lead pretty interesting lives, to be sure—but still, a varied literary world this does not necessarily make.)

That said, things start to get tricky when writers start writing about very different perspectives, especially perspectives from different cultures than their own. For instance, in Little Bee, British author Chris Cleave takes on two distinctive narrative voices, both presumably very far from the internal landscape he knows as a straight white British man: one, Sarah, is a British mother in her thirties, and one, Little Bee, a Nigerian girl in her teens.

Opinions from reviewers and readers of Little Bee seem to be divided into two camps. Either Cleave inhabited these perspectives that were so different from his completely and compellingly, or it was glaringly obvious that the author was a man writing from a woman’s perspective and he shouldn’t even have tried.

Apart from the question of realism, or at least suspension of disbelief—a subjective topic if ever there was one—there’s a question of . . . let’s call it ethics. Is it cultural appropriation for a white man to tell the story of a Nigerian girl? Well, potentially, yeah. Okay, then how about the story of a white woman? If the white man grew up in Africa, does that make it okay? Is it unethical for a black South African writer to tell a story from the perspective of a white South African? For a straight woman to write about a gay man?

[Continue reading on Book-It’s Blog.]