Should we write what we know?
The New York Times Book Review once asked the writers Zoe Heller and Mohsin Hamid whether the maxim "Write what you know" is helpful advice or an idle cliché. Don't we want to expand beyond our own narrow lives?
Both Heller and Hamid in their answers get to the heart of what the adage truly means, that writing what you know can extend beyond just your personal experiences. Hamid says: “It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know. Fiction comes into existence when these two strands are knitted together.”
Heller says that you can mine your own life, with a but: “But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.”
Heller also makes the point that the advice serves to remind any writer to focus on writing “what you really know, as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know.”