Joseph Helm­re­ich is the author of The Return, a sci­ence fic­tion nov­el about a van­ished astro­physi­cist who reap­pears six years lat­er and inspires a cult fol­low­ing — despite deny­ing he was abduct­ed or ever even miss­ing. With the release of the book this Tues­day, Joseph is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Write what you know.” At some point, every begin­ning writer hears this con­tro­ver­sial piece of advice. While there’s been con­sid­er­able debate over its exact mean­ing, there’s no deny­ing that its sim­plest inter­pre­ta­tion has allure. Does any­one think John Updike could have writ­ten about Newark Jews with the same insight and real­ism as Philip Roth? Or that Roth, work­ing out of his clap­board house in Con­necti­cut, could have com­posed a sto­ry col­lec­tion about Indi­an Amer­i­cans to rival Inter­preter of Mal­adies? Knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence breed authen­tic­i­ty and authen­tic­i­ty mat­ters; this is espe­cial­ly true in today’s cul­tur­al land­scape, where the trait is no longer seen as mere­ly an artis­tic virtue but — as the recent con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing Lionel Shriver’s com­ments at the Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val demon­strates — often a moral one, as well. The writer who relies too heav­i­ly on imag­i­na­tion over life expe­ri­ence can invite charges of cul­tur­al insen­si­tiv­i­ty or, worse, appropriation.

But write what you know” is more than just prag­mat­ic or even eth­i­cal advice. The max­im reflects the gen­uine artis­tic impulse to share. Writ­ers have deep, per­son­al con­nec­tions to what they know, and writ­ing about these sub­jects — their home­towns, fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties, per­son­al strug­gles, etc. — often tran­scends the sim­ple trans­fer of knowl­edge. The writer bares their soul, exor­cis­es their psy­cho­log­i­cal demons, bring us into their world, and in doing so, bonds with the read­er as the per­son­al grad­u­al­ly trans­fig­ures into the universal. 

And yet, there are oth­er kinds of writ­ers and oth­er rea­sons to write. In fact, we some­times learn the most from the writ­ers who start­ed out know­ing the least. When Tom Wolfe delved into the var­i­ous­ly alien worlds of psy­che­del­ic hip­piedom, fight­er jocks and astro­nauts, and Wall Street Mas­ters of the Uni­verse”, he emerged with works of prose that are not only real­is­tic and engag­ing, but are wide­ly regard­ed as defin­i­tive. As opposed to being lim­it­ed by his igno­rance, Wolf used his out­sider sta­tus to his advan­tage, dress­ing delib­er­ate­ly out of place in flashy white suits so as to pro­voke peo­ple into explain­ing things to him. Like the great jour­nal­ist he is, writ­ing for Wolfe has always been a process of learn­ing as much as teach­ing and, in both his fic­tion and non-fic­tion, he takes his read­ers along for the ride. If Tom Wolfe or Joan Did­ion or Mar­garet Atwood or even Philip Roth had embarked on all their books by con­sid­er­ing only what they already knew, their oeu­vres would undoubt­ed­ly be thin and far less interesting.

When I began writ­ing my sci­ence fic­tion nov­el, The Return, I didn’t con­scious­ly set out to explore top­ics with which I was unfa­mil­iar. But when the sto­ry demand­ed it, I didn’t fight it either, and so I soon found myself research­ing quan­tum mechan­ics (I was a C+ physics stu­dent), Catholi­cism (I’m an obser­vant Jew), and coastal Spain (my Euro­pean excur­sions are large­ly lim­it­ed to the con­cen­tra­tion camps in Poland). I can’t say that my treat­ment of these sub­jects will nec­es­sar­i­ly read as accu­rate to those more famil­iar with them.

I also read­i­ly admit that in my book’s genre, that might not mat­ter much. Authen­tic­i­ty is inevitably less scru­ti­nized in a sci fi thriller than it is in lit­er­ary fic­tion. In a book like mine, the plot­ting much more than the set­ting, prose, or dia­logue, is the lifeblood of the story. 

Still, I’m sure there are many who would have encour­aged me to stick to what I knew” and in some sense, they’d be right. My descrip­tions of Spain will nev­er match Cer­vantes or Javier Marías’s. I can’t expound on the­o­ret­i­cal physics like Neil deGrasse Tyson and my writ­ings on Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy prob­a­bly fall short of Dan Brown’s, to say noth­ing of Milton’s. I hope I got more right than wrong, but either way, for me, the chal­lenge of tack­ling these less famil­iar sub­jects made for a rich­er and more excit­ing writ­ing expe­ri­ence. I’d like to think that the sense of adven­ture and curios­i­ty it brought out in me will also be con­ta­gious to the reader. 

Write what you know” is use­ful advice, but, like all artis­tic advice, it needs to be tak­en with a good dose of skep­ti­cism and applied care­ful­ly. In the end, a spir­it of open­ness, pos­si­bil­i­ty and risk-tak­ing may be more valu­able than a time­worn adage that, sen­si­ble as it may be, ulti­mate­ly encour­ages us to play it safe. 

Joseph Helm­re­ich is the author of The Return and co-author of War­ring Par­ents, Wound­ed Chil­dren and the Wretched World of Child Cus­tody. In addi­tion to his writ­ing, he is a mem­ber of the alter­na­tive folk duo Hon­ey­brick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

Relat­ed Content:

Joseph Helm­re­ich is the author of The Return (2017, Thomas Dunne Books/​St. Martin’s Press) and co-author of War­ring Par­ents, Wound­ed Chil­dren and the Wretched World of Child Cus­tody (Green­wood Press, 2008). In addi­tion to his writ­ing, he is a mem­ber of alter­na­tive folk duo, Hon­ey­brick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.