Write what you don’t know

After my dismissal of Chekov’s law, the next phrase I’d love to see disappear from playwriting feedback sessions is Write What You Know. I put that in all caps because if you’ve ever heard this at a feedback session you know it is delivered as a lecture from on high – you can hear the caps – not as a reasoned comment on the playwright’s play that they have brought to the feedback session.

But even if feedback sessions were a place for lectures on craft, Write What You Know would not belong there, because Write What You Know doesn’t even belong in a lecture on craft, except to dispel the notion that there is anything to be gained by following it.

I believe Write What You Know is harmful and false advice. At least, I hope Mary Shelley never met a monster, that Bram Stoker never had his blood sucked by a vampire, or that Sophocles never killed his father and married his mother. If you write only what you know, that can be very limiting, and potentially boring. This is not to say that what you write should have no relationship to what you know, only that it does not serve you well as a limit.

When I chose to write Rice Kugel, a play in which at least half the characters were Asian American, I knew that I, a white guy, was taking a risk of making errors. I had listened to my Asian-American friends and acquaintances, and read articles and blogs on Asian-American issues. But still I was not and am not Asian American, so I risked getting some things wrong. That’s one of the things readings can help with, not as a substitution for research, but as a beta test. So I would take scenes or the whole play to readings, and took notes from Asian-American actors, friends and acquaintances as to where I hadn’t quite gotten things right. I still can’t claim that I know what it’s like to be Asian American, but I feel that an Asian American watching or reading my play would feel heard, and that is the feedback I’m now getting on Rice Kugel.

Here are some worthwhile articles and blog posts on the subject that I discovered while researching this post:

Writing Wednesdays #6: Write What You Don’t Know by Steven Pressfield

Write What You Don’t Know by Mark Troy

Write What You Don’t Know by John S.

Write What You Don’t Know by Karen White

Write What You Don’t Know by Julian Hoxter

Write What You Don’t Know by Ken Kesey (New York Times)

Read a sample from Rice Kugel (mature content)

2 thoughts on “Write what you don’t know

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