There is an old phrase that is thrown about whenever an individual begins to place one word after another in pursuit of telling a tale. It is given usually by writers of moderate success, or by those whose successes far outweigh their contributions. The words are these: “write what you know.” There is a valuable truth to these words, but it is often misconstrued to mean “write what you live.” If you are a student living on a student budget in Scotland, you should write about a student living on a student budget in Scotland. If you are a middle-aged man working behind the bar in a country town, then you better write about a middle-aged man working behind the bar in a country town. And so on.
When applied as such, this rule offers little room for the strange, the surreal. It doesn’t even offer room for experience beyond that which you have lived. It extends to characterisation, too. If you were only to “write what you know”, we would only be reading novels written in a semi-coherent stream of consciousness first person.
This is extremely problematic when it comes to writing plays, where you are jumping between characters ceaselessly. Living one life, we cannot claim to fully understand what it is like to be anyone else. Writers have to take risks, working from what they understand of themselves. It is further stretched when you want to write about characters from another place, another time. Sure, you may never truly understand what it is like to have been a Persian soldier marching against Athens in the 5th Century BC. However, you do understand what it is like to have to get up in the morning after only a few hours sleep. You may know the feeling of clearing a campsite in the rain, before trudging off for a day of hiking. You may know what it is like to experience culture shock. Suddenly, you find points of relation between you and the soldier of King Darius I. Simple things like experiencing winter in a place far from home can bring “what you know” to a piece of writing.
Recently, Joanna Alpern’s new play A Rattle of Keys went up in the Barron Theatre. Much of the play dealt with the ordeals of post-traumatic stress disorder, and life after military service. When writing about contemporary issues, “write what you know” can shift to “write mindfully.” The rule works against writing in a state of ignorance. A key factor for any writer before embarking on a new project is research. Learn your subject matter, and, if possible, reach out to those that know whatever it is you are writing about first-hand. Once a piece has been put to stage it is difficult to plead ignorance.
Write what you know, but do not limit yourself only to what you have experienced. Show off what you learn. Discuss with your audience that which you feel to be important, but do not be so proud as to not listen when they feel you to be at fault. If a writer learns that their work is, despite their intentions, offensive in its treatment of subject matter, the worst thing to say is “I didn’t know.”