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Know Jack #394 Write What You Know

Write what you know, every writer has heard it over and over again. I’m searching for a word here—a word that means you say and believe one thing and do the opposite. It eludes me at the moment. Never mind, I’ll think of it soon. Anyway, it’s a word that writers should become familiar with.

I suppose it’s fair to ask how well we should know something before presuming to write about it. There are a great many things, so I’ve been told, that the color of my skin or my lack/possession of certain body parts precludes me from ever knowing or forming a valid opinion about.

I purposely left my lack of education out of that list, because as a famous songwriter once said, “I can read the writing on the wall”. If this modern line of reasoning is objectively true, then the scope of my characters and settings of my writing must, of necessity, be extremely limited.

I don’t mind that too much. Being a dinosaur and a rebel, I ignore such thinking and break the rules anyway. However, I do have a couple of objections to this interpretation of the write what you know rule.

First of all, if I adhere to the rule and write only what I can know as a white, male, heterosexual, Christian, then I will be criticized for not being diverse, inclusive, and equitable. On the other hand, if I venture into writing from the viewpoint of “persons of color”, women (real or make-believe), homosexuals, and other religions/cultures I am appropriating or more accurately misappropriating a fountain of knowledge that belongs solely to those who identify as one of those groups. Thus, dooming my writing to be styled as paternalistic, monochromatic, monoculture, and worthy of being banned.

This seems strange to me because I frequently read writers with no real experience or identity as a member of my faith who write stereotypical characters of that faith. Do they really know what they are writing? Or are they playing on approved stereotypes with impunity?

Should I write a character wearing literary blackface will he/she meet with the same acceptance as the hypercritical, bigoted, homophobic dullard Christian of modern literature? I mean we all know one of those characters springs from racist attitudes and the other is amusing and insightful.

In a world where “My Truth” supersedes reality, does anyone really know anything for sure? Choosing the pronouns for my characters might be offensive not only to them but the reader.

In a world that does not revolve around the sun, but around each of the billions of individuals that inhabit the planet, not only does everybody know everything, but no one knows anything. Write what you know then takes on a whole new meaning.


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