The Problem with “Write What You Know”

I watched a TED talk recently by a rather well-known author who has an amazing personal story. (If you don’t know what a TED talk is, look it up. You’re missing some awesome stuff.)

Elif Shafak grew up as a young Muslim woman in Turkey, presented both with modern feminism and traditional medicines and superstition. She was put on trial just a couple of years ago by her homeland for the words and actions of her fictional characters. She’s been writing fiction most of her life, and has been criticized for choosing to step outside of the identity that she has been labeled with as a Muslim woman author to write about people who are… not Muslim women.

I think Ms. Shafak makes a very profound statement toward the end of her talk about the old adage “write what you know”. She proposes that we should forget about writing what we know and instead, write what we feel. Our identity tag should not limit the reaches of our imaginations.

Her proposition is an invitation to explore points of view, cultures, and identities that are not our own. In today’s world, people are classified in a lot of ways, but in fiction we have the ability to transcend those classifications and labels. We have the ability to empathize and portray people who are not carbon copies of ourselves, and in turn give our readers a glimpse into those other points of view as well.

In fiction, my voice can give life to old women and gay men, to warriors and scholars and priests of fantastic religions. I can incorporate my own knowledge and wisdom into these fictional folks. I can research to give them a more authentic point of view and experience. But in the end, I can never really “know” what it’s like to be a man or a shaman or a lizard-creature. What is important, I think, is that I connect with these characters on an emotional level, bringing them to life so that my readers can connect with them as well.

Do you step outside your identity box when you write? How so?

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