Aspiring writers are too often told to write what they know. They are taught that some of their best ideas will come from their own personal experience. Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes, it is incredibly dangerous and damaging. I’m a white, straight male and, really, what I know doesn’t matter.
There are a group of people like me, actually, that have grappled with this misleading advice to find ideas and new directions by mining our own, played-out and hegemonic experience. We call ourselves The Unicorns. It’s an uncreative moniker a group of us writers in Seattle have given ourselves, named for the bar where we meet sometimes after a fiction reading. At any given point there’s anywhere from three to six of us, all alums or soon-to-be alums of the University of Washington’s MFA in Creative Writing program. And despite our name, there is very little magical, rare or, even, very interesting about us. We are all cisgendered white folks, heteronormative and, in varying degrees, un-poor. In our privilege, we are a walking Seattle stereotype.
Still, when we cheers our IPAs and congratulate each other on our various and minor successes, we embody another stereotype of the white, educated, and conscientious artist: we are aware of our privilege but are unwilling and, really, unable to relinquish it. There is nothing we can do about our whiteness, nothing we can do about our heterosexuality and nothing I can do about my maleness. Yet, as artists and, in particular, writers, there is something we can say about it.
But should we?
Certainly, not all art must be a comment on contemporary socio-politics. But, literature is uniquely situated to drive readers to a sense of empathy with its subject. Through tools like characterization, narrative voice, and point-of-view, authors can use the world they build to share experiences and, sometimes, change minds. But if we continue to tell the same stories of people who already operate within the current infrastructure of hegemony and dominance, we are failing as artists by reinforcing that worldview. In other words, if I write what I know, I’m only rewriting the same white-driven, heteronormative bullshit we’ve already filled the literary canon with.
So what does that leave me to write about?
Writing what I know would certainly be easy, but would it be responsible? My narrative has already been explored and is already the source of my privilege and my dominance. I want to write about people not like me, but that leaves me leaning, precariously, into territory of colonialism and appropriation. If I am going to write, say, a Native American character or a black character, I need, somehow, to write in such a way that doesn’t imply the entire community of color needs my help. At the same time, writing their stories as if they are my own is a violent act of appropriation people like me have been doing for generations.
I believe, though, that embedded in the craft of writing, itself, are the tools to accomplish this. Writing what I know, in other words, is not about fictionalizing some minutiae of my own life but is, more so, an experiment in using voice, narrative, and point-of-view to highlight that which is universal. My characters don’t, necessarily, need to be a version of me or a version of people like me. But they also can’t be people completely unlike me, either. I need to write in such a way that my non-white, non-straight characters are both celebrated for their individuality but also represent our universal similarities. Writing provides the tools to do so respectfully. Good writers will use those tools wisely.