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.
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?