One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever received was, “Write what you know.” To some extent, I think this is true. Your thoughts and emotions in real life should always inform your writing. However, I’ve heard this advice used multiple times as a reason why teenagers, with their lack of so-called life experience, can’t write publishable material.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that life experience varies from person to person, and not necessarily based on age. In 2010 I spent the summer in Africa, and I guarantee you that many of those Kenyan children have more life experience than your average American adult. They take care of younger siblings, tend farms, haul water several miles each day, and endure starvation during dry years. They cope with physical pain in ways we can’t imagine. And when it comes down to it, only memoir writers truly adhere to the rule “write what you know.” For us fiction-writers, some of it has to come from the imagination. It’s the intersection between imagination and reality that makes a truly fantastic book.
Take Suzanne Collins, one of our generation’s most popular writers. I enjoyed Hunger Games as much as the next person. Now, did Suzanne actually experience a fight to the death broadcasted on national television in a dystopian North America? Doubtful. But I’m sure she drew from her own life experiences when she wrote about Katniss’s emotions and fears. In a sense, I think the “write what you know” rule is fatally flawed. Most of us don’t have interesting enough lives to write only what we know. It’s the bits and pieces, the most basic human emotions, that really make a story come to life.
Brooke asked me to write a post about being a young author. In addressing other teenaged writers, I say this: don’t let “lack of life experience” hold you back. Life experience is measured not necessarily in years, but in how you’ve utilized your time. I know many writers are solitary, introspective people, but every once in a while it’s necessary to break out of your shell. Do something crazy. Have an adventure. Go on a trip, or try a new sport, or have a conversation about a hot-button issue with someone who disagrees. If you’re Christian, find someone who’s Buddhist or Wiccan and ask them to talk about their faith (perhaps even consider attending a session of worship). Older writers possess an inherent advantage in that they’ve had more time to experience the world. In order to make up for this, you must be attentive and curious and active in your search for knowledge. Try to look at the world from different perspectives.
There is no reason why a young author can’t write something publishable. Just remember that all fiction authors draw from their imaginations as well as real-life experiences, and therefore you should seek out new ways to broaden your mind.
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About Kate Coursey: I'm a 19-year-old YA Fantasy writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. I am represented by Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis.
I'm addicted to soy chai lattes and frozen yogurt and calorie-laden Mexican food. My goal is to streak on all six continents (there's no way I'm going to Antarctica...way too cold). So far I've got North America and Africa under my belt...four more to go.