Once upon a time, someone introduced my grandmother to the trite writerly advice, “Write what you know.” I don't know who this person was, but I've long yearned to smack him up the side of the head with something really heavy. A rusty iron skillet pops to mind.
My grandmother has wasted countless breaths urging me to adhere to this axiom.
It's not bad advice, in my opinion, but it's value lies in how it's applied. To my grandmother's reckoning, it appears to mean one should write about events one has experienced. I think that misses the point. To me, the true meaning would be better expressed as, “Write what you understand.”
Even in memoir, where one is writing things that happened to oneself, what makes a writing work isn't that the writer experienced things but the writer's observations, conclusions, and voice. An autobiography of someone who hasn't done anything to make themselves known before writing the book isn't going to succeed in captivating the interest of anyone, save maybe the author's grandmother, if there isn't some major hook. The hook can be a simple as humor or insight, but it had better be interesting. Personally, I don't have such a hook.
My grandmother would find fault with the last paragraph, claiming I've done loads of fascinating things, but I'm of the opinion that everyone has. Every single human being on this planet has an interesting story. Yes, even a toothless cashier at a rural Wal-Mart, a kid working the fryer at Burger King in some random suburb, an illerate factory hand, an overworked farmer, and a middle-aged accountant who insists on wearing knee-high socks with sandals at the beach. No matter how dull we may appear on the surface, everyone has something that would make others go, “Oh...” if only they knew. The problem is, even people who have more obvious draw can rarely write about themselves in a way that doesn't make other people roll their eyes, fall asleep, or fling the text as far as they can.
Of course, my granny is perfectly fine with me writing fiction rather than memoir. She just doesn't see why I'd write about ghosts and Weres and faeries rather than about a Navy brat who grows up to be a Navy wife and has done the exact same things with her life as I have. Except maybe not skip college.
The thing is, I believe I do write about what I know. No, I don't know what it's like to be dead or to have another form or to wield the sort of magic you find in fantasy. But I do know what it's like to be an outsider, to have people look through you and try to deny your very presence. I know what it's like to struggle coming to terms with being different. I know what it's like to hide just how different you are. And how to reach through all that to connect to others. That is what I really write about, growing into yourself, accepting yourself, finding people who can accept you, and learning to accept other people even though they're different from you. These are things I'm not always good at doing, but the struggle for them is most deffinately something I know.