Write What You Don’t Know

by David-Matthew Barnes

I sat in on a workshop at a writing conference in Las Vegas recently. The very accomplished instructor offered sage advice to his starry-eyed attendees, as many teachers do: “Write what you know.”

As I watched each student scribble this pearl of wisdom down in their comp books and on their notepads, I felt compelled to disagree.

Writers should write about characters and places and issues they want to write about, regardless if the plot, storyline, and universe of their novel don’t reflect their own personal experiences. Passion should overrule knowledge every time.

One of the writers at the conference later asked me to clarify my objection to the teacher’s advice. I responded with, “Tell the story you feel has to be told, not a story you’re comfortable telling just because it’s familiar to you.”

All three of my novels were a tremendous challenge to write. But, I prefer it that way. I live for the research process of a book. I love writing about cultures and ethnicities that are not my own. Creating characters that are polar opposites of me is thrilling. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me from becoming a lazy writer.

Mesmerized, my first novel, was written from the first-person perspective of a seventeen-year-old woman coping with the murder of her older gay brother. Accidents Never Happen, my second novel, tells the story of a love-starved Puerto Rican boxer. Swimming to Chicago, my most recent novel, explores the life of a gay Armenian-American teenage boy growing up in a small town in the South.

These novels couldn’t be more different from each other. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing a novel becomes a journey for me, taking me into unfamiliar territory. I never know what I’ll discover through research or the actual writing process (characters can be unpredictable and very determined). But, in the end, the experience of writing a novel leaves me enlightened – and not just creatively.

When I started writing Swimming to Chicago, I knew I wanted to explore a culture and society that hadn’t received the attention and focus it deserved, especially where gay teenagers are concerned.

I considered making the main character of Alex an Iranian-American teen, mostly due to my emotional response to the execution of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari .  But, I felt their story was told beautifully by Jay Paul Deratany in his stage play Haram Iran.

I continued researching and soon discovered articles about gay rights (or the lack of) in Armenia. While working on the novel, I found and read an article . This motivated and inspired me to write Alex’s story. The more I read, the more I became certain that Alex was Armenian-American. To my knowledge, a young adult novel written by an American author has never featured a gay Armenian teen character as its protagonist. Therefore, I knew this was a story that had to be told. I knew that not only Armenian-Americans would identify with Alex, but other young people from conservative cultures would as well.

Sure, it was a risk. But if you’re not writing fearlessly, why write at all?

15 Responses to “Write What You Don’t Know”

  1. 1 Laydin Michaels January 10, 2012 at 7:54 AM

    Thanks for sharing your motivation for your writing. I enjoyed reading about your process, and I love and agree with your thoughts on writing the story you feel needs to be told.


  2. 2 Carsen Taite January 10, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    Great advice – I admire the way you stretch yourself with each book. Swimming to Chicago is a wonderful story and all the accolades you’ve received are well deserved.


  3. 3 Karen Wolfer January 10, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    Wonderful blog post. The act of writing is an adventure in itself, but your observations make it sound beautifully exciting. Can’t wait to read one of your creations.


  4. 4 Sheri Campbell January 10, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    First, I am not a writer of novels or any stories for pleasure reading but I have written many books and manuals for the medical industry. I may be too confused with the issue of writing what you know and writing what you don’t know. It think you and serious authors do thousand of hours researching stories thus they do write what they know. They have learned from the knowledge they have acquired. K.I Thompson writes historical novels, Radclyffe wrote about the F.B.I , Georgia Beers wrote 96 Hours in Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11 it goes on and on. None of these authors seemed to know the facts until completing the research. I could not have written my books without the research. To conclude I think you do write about what you know and you do a fine job. If you disagree remember I said I was a bit confused……


  5. 5 Dale Chase January 10, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    I totally agree about writing what you want, what has passion for you. I write mostly historical erotica these days. I “know” the old west by my passion for it along with reading on the subject. If I confined myself to what I truly know, I’d have little subject matter. My rule: let the mind soar. There are no limits.


  6. 6 Elan Bartnehama January 10, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Great post. About writing. About life. I recently left teaching where much of my time was devoted to getting students to take risks in their writing. Given the shrinking margin for error that society tolerates, this has become an increasingly difficult task. I applaud you for taking those risks at the workshop, this blog, and your writing.


  7. 7 Rebekah Weatherspoon January 10, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    Love this post David-Matthew. LOVE IT!


  8. 8 Clifford Henderson January 10, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    So with you on this one, David. If I wrote only what I knew, my books would be very short.


  9. 9 Heidi Drew January 10, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    Maybe, write what you know is just a good place to start but it soon becomes boring banal and bromidic.


  10. 10 rebeccasb January 10, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Great blog. I think I’ve been trying to say this for years when people ask for writing advice, and never quite articulating it. Even if a novel is set in a familiar setting, something about the process of writing it has to stretch you…or it’s boring for the writer and the reader.


  11. 11 Baxter Clare Trautman January 10, 2012 at 5:13 PM

    Gee, if I only wrote what I know I’d be writing about writing all day…yuck!


  12. 12 Kathleen Knowles January 10, 2012 at 7:03 PM

    I don’t write what i know, i write to discover things i want to know about. Thanks for your insight


  13. 13 JW January 10, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    I think that if you only tell stories that are familiar to you, they become mundane in the telling. If you already know it, how can you be truly excited by it? And if you’re not excited about it, how can you reasonably expect that to carry through to the reader?


  14. 14 David-Matthew Barnes January 11, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Thank you for such terrific feedback! I’m happy to read the ideas and discussions the concept of writing what we don’t know (but will eventually know after the journey of writing the novel) has generated here. I’m equally pleased to discover I’m not the only writer who embraces this somewhat unconventional approach to writing. xoxo D-MB


  15. 15 Sabra January 15, 2012 at 12:15 AM

    The movie “Mambo Italiano” deals with this issue with a lot of humor.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you stressed that research is important. People often don’t want to do their homework, and end up writing in a way that further alienates the population they are depicting. A good writer puts in a lot of time getting under the skin of those “others”.

    It’s a rare gift, but it can be done.


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