Last Thursday, Michelle listed "Write what you know" as one of the Nine Big Lies about writing, and I chimed in with my own derision at the idea. "Write what you're interested in," I said. My old agent used to say, "Write what you care about." I like that one.
"Write what you know" goes wrong in a couple of ways:
1. When it encourages people to essentially just write memoir, assuming that their life or the life of their grandmother or whomever, is going to be fascinating to everyone else. That's rarely the case. "Write what you know" gets interpreted as "write about yourself." We are usually not as interesting as we think we are.
2. People tend to write less than spellbindingly about subjects with which they are intimately familiar, because they can't really capture the shiny newness of first contact with the coolness of their subject. If you've ever heard an expert talk about something, you may have noticed your eyes glazing over just before you fell asleep. "Write what you know" gets interpreted as "write an encylopedia article." Facts and history do not necessarily make compelling reading.
To sum up, "write what you know" tends to result in lackluster prose about not particularly interesting subject matter. Middle school may have been a real bitch, filled with daily trauma for you, but it was just like that for everyone else and no, we don't so much want to read about it. Unless your middle school years were when you began to think that you were the Messiah and you wrote a 1,000-page novel about it called The Instructions.
So, if you think that "write what you know" is an exhortation to write about yourself because you are a unique, beautiful snowflake with an important story to tell because Every Life Is A Biography, you might want to think it through again, Fagin.
But: There is a time when "write what you know" gets it exactly right. This is not when you are writing confessional memoirs, but when you are using your firsthand knowledge of a subject to flesh out the world of a novel. This is when you speak with authority about a topic and imbue your narrative with truth.
Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award-winning novel by Jaimy Gordon, is set in the world of cheap horse racing. Jaimy Gordon, back in her youth, worked at a down-at-heel race track and was able to use her memories of the time and place to paint a compelling and believable background for her story.
Antonia Byatt spent a good deal of her adult working life in the world of academia, teaching writing and literature, and this firsthand experience adds the weight of reality to several of her books (The Game, The Virgin in the Garden and a bunch of others).
Iain Pears' job as an art dealer came in handy when he was writing his series of Jonathan Argyle murder mysteries, which are set in the world of--that's right--art dealing and art theft.
I will spare you an exhaustive list. My point is that "write what you know" is often poor advice when you are looking for subject matter, but excellent advice when you are building a fictional world.
Also! Important announcement! The proofs for Notes From Underground have gone out to the authors! That means that we are close to publication date, which we've declared to be on or around March 1, 2011! That's soon! Be excited, because we are!