One well-worn piece of advice we writers are guaranteed to receive at some point is the admonition to ‘write what you know.’ Sounds sensible, I suppose, but those words cause me to feel more peeved than inspired! Certainly, many acclaimed writers have taken this advice to heart and flourished as a result. Patricia Cornwell worked in a medical examiner’s office, then created a heroine who is a crime-solving coroner. John Grishom, an attorney, has written a string of hit courtroom dramas. Even Jane Austen confined her masterpieces to the genteel setting of small-town gentry, a world utterly familiar to her.
But what about the other side of the coin? Presumably, J.K. Rowling knows few real-life wizards, nor did she attend a wizardry academy, yet managed to somehow create the brilliant world of Harry Potter. It is similarly unlikely that Stephanie Meyer ever crossed paths with a single vampire before writing her wildly successful ‘Twilight’ series. And consider Stephen King. Was he personally acquainted with teenage psychics who ran amok at the prom? Or children that came back from the grave? Doubtful! The same applies to any science fiction author that did not actually visit other planets, live in the future, or interact with aliens.
As you see, my chief objection to the ‘write what you know’ adage is that it fails to take into account the most important attribute for any writer – imagination! To create worlds, and then vividly populate them, requires a freeing of the spirit and a pushing back of boundaries, to let perceptions flow unfettered. The process should never be judged or constrained! Most children naturally make up all sorts of wild tales, and are complimented for their lively imaginations. Why is it that as adults, this ability morphs into a negative?
My own fantasy/adventure series The Boy with Golden Eyes is actually an amalgamation of imagination and experience. Since the beginning, I have been gifted with a psychic and spiritual bent, something largely unshared by friends and family. In my daily life, I had glimpses of a ‘parallel existence’ that others were oblivious to. This was isolating, yet at the same time, liberating; though as a child, such episodes often proved unsettling. Only upon entering adulthood, and after working with scientists who were able to verify my gifts, was I able to embrace them wholeheartedly. It was during the many years I lived abroad (mainly in Japan) while traveling to the far-flung corners of the world, that I underwent a series of singular…even life-altering…transformations, which eventually formed the backbone of The Boy with Golden Eyes. These experiences include vividly recalling a past life in ancient Egypt while visiting that land, and following a powerful guidance allowing me to locate a friend in South America when I had no idea of his actual whereabouts. Though friends had suggested I write a memoir to record these numerous remarkable happenings, I much prefer to do it through my novels, transferring my own revelations to my young hero, Rupert (who is also heavily influenced by my gifted, extraordinary great-nephew, Sam). It is now Rupert who travels through exotic lands, encountering people and events which alter his perception of reality. Some of his adventures may be regarded as fanciful, but nearly all have their roots in my own offbeat odyssey.
Still, I return to my issues with the ‘write what you know’ adage. No outsider should put limitations on where our imaginings might take us…to other worlds, to ages long past, or to realms yet to be brought into being. As authors, it is our joyous obligation to break through any and all constraints, including those false traps or boundaries that ‘tradition’ dictates.
Last summer, I witnessed unbridled creativity in action when Sam, then fifteen, was overwhelmed by an overpowering inspiration and composed, in about three weeks’ time, a full-length (120,000+ words) fantasy novel filled with exotic settings, intrigue, brilliant plotting, and memorable characters. I observed in awe, while daily being inundated with the latest chapters he would send me. It made me feel almost guilty that it would take me a year to duplicate his output! Now, if Sam had harkened to the ‘write what you know’ adage, this notable debut opus would have remained unwritten. His ‘real’ life as a privileged Manhattan teen, would dictate that he limit himself to settings like his highly competitive high school, perhaps. That would have been like attempting to cage a bird ready to soar!
Another example readily at hand is my older sister, now in the process of having her latest novel published. The story, set in a slightly futuristic San Francisco, concerns a savvy federal prosecutor who gets drawn into the illegal world of cloning when offered a romantic rendezvous with the cloned version of her favorite celebrity. I can assure you that my sibling has no experience interacting with clones, celebrated or otherwise! But she has succeeded in turning out a terrific tale nonetheless.
Obviously, ‘what we know’ is a wonderful starting point in the creative process. Even the wildest adventures or fantasies likely reflect something of the author’s true feelings or self. But that is only the beginning, our jumping off point on a splendid journey that requires no reservations or passports…just a brazen willingness to follow wherever the twists and turns of our unexplored path may lead us. Therefore, feel free to ignore the signposts along the way, and you cannot fail to find the pilgrimage both rewarding and liberating. And as always, write on!
About the Author
Marjorie Young is a mystically-inclined traveler, spiritual counselor, and lover of the world’s myths and cultures. Her fantasy/adventure series, The Boy with Golden Eyes, has won prizes in Paris, New York, London, and Los Angeles. She currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a columnist for the Ballard News Tribune.
Books by Marjorie Young