Words of Empathy.


Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy. – Nikki Giovanni.

Why do people tell writers to write what they know? Perhaps because they misunderstand the writers’ flights of fantasy. By all means, write what you know if that inspires you, but I often find it more challenging and rewarding to write further than that – to put yourself in someone’s shoes or write about someone who is completely unlike you. Most works of fiction don’t need the ingredient of you having experienced what you’re writing about. A lot of writing is observation, sure, but it is also extrapolating, imagining and dreaming.

Even non-fiction work doesn’t always have to be about what you know. You can write about other people’s lives after having researched them and interviewed them – as in biography writing. You can write about things happening in the world without having been there yourself – reporting on political and social events. It is limiting to just write about what you know. It is a good start, a grounding place for a beginning writer, because I remember writing a lot about my identity and my life when I started out; now I have branched out to other subjects and creative fiction.

When we write fiction, we are many different characters, even our villains are people, people we have pulled out of our creative hats. There would be very little fiction if we all wrote what we knew. For example, Jane Austen may have been writing from her observances and social experiences, but I doubt she experienced all that she wrote about. She most likely had to imagine and empathise. Writers like Neil Gaiman very rarely use their own experiences to write their fiction. The act of creation is intuition, gut instinct, moving forwards from a starting point to end up in a whole new space.

So take flight – don’t stay grounded.

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