I don’t ever tell my students to “write what they know,” for fear they’ll misinterpret and limit themselves to an unfortunate degree. The phrase itself has always seemed to me alarmingly imprecise, and I’ve wondered about a better way to express the portion of the idea that’s useful.
When the phrase “a lion as taxidermied by a taxidermist who had never seen a lion,” appeared in my twitter feed, I assumed (perhaps because I first saw it tweeted by Maud Newton) that it was a wonderful metaphor for bad writing. In fact, it was a literal reference to this:
Since it wasn’t originally a writing lesson, I plan to make it one: write what you know shouldn’t mean you need to be the lion, or to have raised lions, or lived with lions, to write about lions (wherein lions can be either the material conditions or the emotional underpinnings of the world you’re writing about.) If a person says that, they may think that’s what they want, but they’re wrong. What they mean is don’t write anything that’s fundamentally untrue to the basic nature of the thing you’re writing about, that’s so far from what you meant to represent that it evokes none of the reaction that it should. If you don’t know enough to tell the difference, then maybe you better ask some questions about lions before you get to writing about them.