Everybody tells a writer to “write what you know.” I’ve given that advice myself to students. The thinking goes that only by experiencing something personally can you portray it authentically.
In other words, the only world we’re “allowed” to write about is the one we see in the mirror.
Really? Since when did J.K. Rowling wave a wand and have anything other than a pile of money magically appear? How about Lewis Carroll? Granted, he smoked opium, but I doubt it conjured up much more than a wicked hangover. I once congratulated a New York Times bestselling author on his excellent depiction of the Arizona desert for one of his novels. “I’ve never been to Arizona,” he informed me. “I just watched a lot of Wild West movies as a boy.”
Don’t get me wrong—writing from experience makes a book feel richer, more nuanced and more self-assured. Ernest Hemingway was a big believer in writers writing what they know. (Then again, he ran with the bulls and I hike with the girl scouts). I have never navigated through a hurricane unless you count the floor of my son’s bedroom.
Here’s the extent of my personal knowledge:
1. A child’s need to go to the bathroom is inversely proportional to the distance from one
2. A contractor is only helpful and reachable before you sign the contract
3. If you want to discuss something really important with your husband, hide the remote
4. Your first attempt at anything will suck. That’s what second attempts are for. And graduate school.
5. Never enter a swimming pool after a bunch of preschoolers have used it. The same goes for teenagers and your car.
If I tried writing solely from my own experience, I’d put readers to sleep faster than C-span during a budget discussion.
My first three novels were set in the New York City Fire Department and yes, my husband is a chief there. But it’s also true that my stories were about a woman fire investigator and my husband had never been an investigator (or a woman, for that matter). My new novel switches between three points of view, all of them Latino, two of them men. I have even less that would qualify as “experience” here—except a passion for my characters and an abiding interest in the issues that affect them. In all my books, my characters have parts of me, but they are not me. They have not lived my life and I have not lived theirs. And that’s what makes it exciting and makes me want to keep writing about them. It’s like falling in love. You can’t wait to find out more about the other person.
“I write because I want to have more than one life,” novelist Anne Tyler was once quoted as saying. I agree. When I sit down to write, I don’t want to look into a mirror, I want to peek through someone else’s window.