Fall semester is right around the corner, and I'm redesigning my undergrad intro to poetry writing syllabus. I'm using this instead of my old standby, which is really expensive. The books don't end up being all that important, anyway, because I have my own ways of explaining things.
This has made me think about one of the most controversial pieces of writing advice that I've received, but not quite dispensed. The good old write what you know.
People gave me that advice when I was a beginning writer. I took it as an invitation to write a lot of bad stories and poems about mythologized versions of various ex-boyfriends. The advice didn't do much harm--and hey, now I write much better poems about mythologized versions of various ex-boyfriends, whole books, even--but I wonder how my writing would've been without the invitation to consider what you know first.
When I teach poetry I give prompts, so students will have to jump through a lot of hoops in the process of writing what they know, which ultimately makes the poems better (I think).
When I've taught fiction writing, it's been more problematic. At times I've wanted to impose a ban on stories about keggers, the dorm, pissy parents who won't help you fix your '87 Sunbird, the girlfriend who stayed at home while her Odysseus went away to State U. With a few exceptions, reading these stories is like watching students (who can't swim) wading into the quarry, not knowing about the 40 foot drop-off until they're submerged, and it's too late. There's such a rush to tell it like it happened that there's no room left for artistry, or discovery.
On the other hand, when writers take on big subjects without adequate research, or write knockoffs when they don't have the details (i.e. My Personal Jesus' Son), it can be equally disastrous.
So what are your thoughts about write what you know? Do you participate in it? Have you ever? Did it stunt your growth? Help you blossom? Do you advocate for a combination of writing beyond one's immediate experience and writing what you know? Do you think that using a persona, or research, is the key to a writer's salvation?
This applies to fiction writers, too, and you know who you are...