Quite often, and probably far too often, aspiring-writers and writers alike, follow the mantra of "write what you know." There are multiple things wrong with that sentence. Deliberately, the distinction between aspiring-writers and writers was made. What does it mean to be an aspiring-writer?
Simply put, an aspiring-writer is someone who does not write. A writer writes. If your work can be found on Amazon, in increasingly sparse brick and mortar locations like Barnes & Noble, on a major website or print publication, a personal blog or even just on a computer desktop for your eyes to see, you're a writer.
However, being a writer and having your work read by an audience is a very different thing. Writing for publication takes a lot of hard work, filled with missteps, unspeakably bad prose and determination that will likely falter at times.
If your goal is to write the next great American novel, that's awesome, do that. But writing a novel that is even engaging enough to be published takes a long time from conception to the finished product.
As you work towards your goal of writing that novel, it is important to realize that other writing can take place. "Write what you know," is a relatively dangerous process to follow because chances are, you are telling yourself that you only know how to write about one thing. If you want to write the next coming-of-age classic, chances are you probably know more than just how to grow up.
That sounds very simple, but when writers follow the "write what you know," guidelines, they are subconsciously telling themselves that they have only one purpose to write, but in reality they are being selfish and writing what they have always wanted to write about, whether it be for the pursuit of fame and fortune, or with visions of grandeur as they accept prestigious literary prizes or accolades.
Everyone knows more than they think. Writers, as creative beings, need to tap into what they actually know, instead of what they want themselves to know. Getting to the point of having a successful writing career is unlikely to begin with, but arriving there without first exploring the depths of your brain and putting words to the page about all sorts of topics, fiction and nonfiction alike, is an even more difficult feat to accomplish.
Admittedly, the pipe dreams presented above, fall in line with how I felt when I started to seriously write about three years ago. About a year into my pursuit of writing an amazing novel, I had a horrendous draft of my first novel, written when I was just 20 years old, along with about a dozen miniature-versions of that novel in the form of short stories for undergraduate workshop classes.
Something changed during my final year of college. I started writing for the university newspaper, penning short articles about new book releases, play write-ups and television. I began to notice that the more I wrote about different topics, the pressure that I put on myself to write a great novel, (at that time I finishing my third, and still unreadable novel) was beginning to loosen, and prose flew more freely than before.
Over the course of the past year and a half, I have published articles with several national venues, with the topics including: books, writing advice, movies, television, plays, sports, music and video games.
I transformed myself from strictly a fiction writer determined to publish a great novel, to a young writer who has published over fifty articles in a little over a year, a short story and a self-published novel that still is not in line with my overarching goals, but is leagues above the three attempts before its fruition. I attribute the slow, yet steady development of my fiction to the increase in topics that I began to write about, along with the fact that I was always writing about something.
Fiction writers, established and beginning ones alike, can not only see their work in print by expanding their horizons and writing about all of the things they know, but also get a nice break from the grind of thinking of topics directly from their own brains. Writing articles, reviews, essays, anything that provides a writer with an external source of information to get started with, can kickstart the gears of creativity when returning to fiction writing.
By all means, maintain the dream of writing a great novel that will be lauded by literary critics and consumers alike; I certainly hold onto that dream, but do not let yourself get trapped into a sort of tunnel vision that prevents you from exploring other topics with your writing.
At the very least, it will give you some new material for your fiction, and improve your writing chops, whether you realize it or not. At best, you might find a medium that you like to write in that you never thought of exploring previously. You do not know what you are really good at writing about until you give it a try.
Ever since I strayed away from my narrow path of writing a very specific type of fiction, ideas have been pouring in about all different types of topics, fiction and nonfiction alike. If there is not enough hours in the day to follow through with all of the new exploratory ideas, then "write what you know" becomes an entirely different concept, and staring at the blank page the next day becomes much less likely.