Writing What You Know in YA

Image via The Odyssey

In a crowded lecture room on a Thursday evening, I furiously take notes while a YA writer discusses and presents her recently released novel. The audience, filled with other aspiring writers and a couple individuals who just wanted something to do on a weeknight, murmur amongst themselves as the first monologue drifts into a Q&A. Everyone seems to have a question they need answered.

“How do you choose what to write about?” a man from the first row asks.

“I write what I know,” the writer states boldly.

I look up from the scribbles in my notebook. The writer stares at the audience with the confident, unforgiving gaze of someone who’s been published. After a breath, she connects events in the novel with events in her life, perspectives of characters with her own. Although excited to be privy to these details and hidden information, her stories fade to background noise as I am enraptured in the all-too-familiar phrase.

Always eager to glean writing advice or learn about new books, I’ve been fortunate to attend a few of these author visits. Of these, the majority have, in some form, included the message, “Write what you know.” The advice stems from the idea that you will be able to write about something you’ve experienced more effectively than something you haven’t experienced. For instance, I would probably know more about the nuances of living in Minnesota (having lived there for most of my life) and be better able to write about those than someone who’d never even visited Minnesota. It’s a brilliant and generally well-founded belief, with classic writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and modern writers like Angie Thomas using the world and people around them to inform their novels. Practically, writing what you know connects imagination with recollection and thus tends to ease the writing process. It also reduces the amount of research necessary, which for any writer is a blessing. Furthermore, it gives writer’s confidence in conveying their stories, since they are familiar with the reality of them.

In modern Young Adult writing, “Write what you know” has gained a new dimension in terms of authenticity and representation. That is, in recent years Young Adult novels have become modes of representation, allowing teenagers to see themselves as protagonists, become empowered, and express their voices. With this drive for diverse characters, writers like Dhonielle Clayton (author of The Belles) and Jenny Han (Always and Forever Lara Jean), who come from diverse backgrounds, have been able to authentically and beautifully convey these characters and their experiences. Personally, it is exciting both as a minority reader and writer to be able to see this development create opportunities for me that have never existed and give me new ways to enjoy my favorite literary genre.

However, do things like cultural identity and personal experiences limit what writers can write about? For instance, as an Asian American, should my novels only speak to the issues that are faced by Asian Americans and myself? Can I not just ignore my identity and write about who or what I would like to? “Write what you know” can be paralyzing in this sense, and it is frustrating at times to deal with the responsibility of representing yourself and your life in literature. However, I don’t believe rejecting the advice altogether is the answer. Indeed, history is filled with YA novels with misrepresentations of ethnicities, cultures, and the like, in doing so sometimes perpetuating terrible societal norms and prejudices. Additionally, even with good intentions it can be difficult to give a story the depth and subtlety it deserves if you haven’t encountered it firsthand.

In the end, “Write what you know,” despite its difficulties, is still solid advice. That’s not to say brilliant YA writers cannot write about whatever they’d like, but they should take extra care if they do. Furthermore, with a diverse, blossoming variety of YA books, I believe that every writer has a story to tell, and an audience that would love to read it. To go on, even if it is not a memoir or realistic fiction, you can still use themes or fictional issues representative of real-life ones to enhance and inform your novel. So follow the advice, and share your story.

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