I was watching TV yesterday (while I should have been reading something worthwhile, I know I know…) and some corny character on some corny show was advising her friend on what he should write about for a paper for his English class. Her cliché advice was to tell him to “write what you know.” This got me thinking, is that really good advice? After all, I think we can safely assume that Nabokov wasn’t a pedophile, or an egotist, as a matter of fact, Nabokov has absolutely nothing in common with Humbert Humbert. Obviously he didn’t write about something he was familiar with and I’d say it worked out for him. On the other hand, look at authors like Steinbeck and Hemmingway who effectively incorporate what they know in almost all of their works.
Perhaps there should be no blanket advice for writers at all. I doubt anyone told Picasso to make his subjects look a little more like humans and a little less like disfigured blobs. I’m about to finish Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (which you should all go pick up! It’s long, but you’ll learn more about our 16th President and the Civil War from the book than you will from any history class) and I’m in love with the way Vidal writes. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship between writing what you know and being a little more abstract; Vidal did all the research necessary to make sure he was factually accurate, while still developing characters through actions and dialog that came straight out of his head.
I know that seemed pointless, but I wasn’t sure what to write about and I thought I’d just go with my whim. Here’s a neat little article I found on the subject: http://www.writing-world.com/basics/outgrow.shtml