In 2012, Lois Lowry gave an excellent speech at Book Expo America. I wasn’t in attendance, but BEA had videos of the panels and breakfasts available on its website. I originally started watching the video of the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast to hear John Green’s talk, but I ended up being most impressed by Lois Lowry.
First, how could one not want to hear what she has to say? The Giver is a classic, and holds up to multiple reads. It’s short but complex and beautiful. I haven’t read the rest of the related books, but they are on my (long) to-read list.
The part of her BEA speech that always stands out to me, no matter how many times I watch the video, is when she talks about the standard advice given to writers: to write what you know. Lowry challenges that, saying that we should write what we don’t know. We should write about what keeps us up at night and explore the questions we can’t answer.
I am a huge fan of speculative fiction, which wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for those haunting questions we ask ourselves. To hear someone like Lois Lowry say you should write what you don’t know felt like an immense endorsement of what I already knew: it’s important to explore those ‘what if’s we ask ourselves, especially when there are no obvious answers. Although a lot of speculative fiction takes place on other planets or in fantasy realms, they often explore aspects of society or humanity that we take for granted or consider fundamental. That’s what I enjoy about writing and reading stories in the genre.
Her piece of advice is one of my favorites from recent years. I think it’s much more interesting when writers explore things they don’t know and take the readers along for the adventure. And it isn’t exclusive to speculative fiction. Sometimes it can be as simple as putting ordinary characters through extraordinary but realistic circumstances; sometimes it means bringing fantastical characters into situations that are mundane to readers but unique for the characters.
None of that would be possible if we all just stuck to writing what we already knew.