From now until about Christmastime, I’m going to be exploring 10 conventional rules of writing, one rule each week. I’m taking these rules from an interesting Writer’s Digest request of some highly respected writers and writing observers to share their opinions of the rules. For each rule, a “follow it” and a “break it” is expressed, and I will put those insights into context for all of you writing memoirs here on the Write My Memoirs site.
Rule 1: Write What You Know.
Literary agent Donald Maass and author Natalie Goldberg square off on this one. Maass goes for the “follow it” recommendation, saying, “Writing what you know means finding what is extraordinary in that which is ordinary and, conversely, discovering what is universal, meaningful and human in that which is uncommon.” Maas notes that it is not necessary to have lived an extraordinary life or have a unique subject. “You need only an original outlook and a fresh purpose for writing,” he says. “Hey, you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.”
Goldberg begs to differ, claiming that we all know only a small amount of what there is to know in the world and, further, your imagination enriches your writing. “We should not limit ourselves,” Goldberg maintains. “We should stretch ourselves beyond our borders. You may know your neighborhood, but what lurks beyond the familiar, safe streets?”
For memoir writers, there’s not much choice here. Mostly, when it comes to the writing-what-you-know rule, you’ll want to “follow it.” I do encourage you to do some fact-checking, research your ancestry and ask a lot of questions to people close to you in order to confirm your memories. Still, when you’re documenting your own impressions of your life, by definition you’re writing what you know.
Check back next time for rule #2!