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WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW: What it Means and What it Doesn't Mean

sign with a heart that says I hate nothing about you
I Hate Nothing About You

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard the axiom “Write what you know.” The concept is battered into you as a writer from the moment you pick up a pen to write fiction (or nonfiction). There are countless “truths” in writing, such as “cut adverbs,” “avoid clichés,” “don’t open with the weather,” “relax on using exclamation points,” “if it sounds like writing rewrite it,” and so on. I could go on all day with all the rules writers “should” follow, but if you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard them already (and you know there’s likely some way that you can break one (or all) of these rules and still make your fiction work).

Over the years, “writing what you know” has been defined in so many ways it’ll make your head spin. The truth is this: most of the definitions, however diverse (or even contrary), are probably, in some way, correct. Or at least they aren’t “wrong.”

Writing what you know can mean focusing on the aspects of your life—relationships, growing up in the town you’re from during the time period you grew up in, what your family dynamic was at some point in your life, if something of interest happened to you or someone you know that readers might find interesting, writing about your current or previous profession, etc.—but it can also mean myriad other things.

For me, writing what I know means writing what I know personally, but also what I can learn by reading books, watching documentaries and television, doing interviews with experts in whatever field I’m interested in, going out and experiencing some activity myself to get firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to do the activity—be it fishing, hiking, camping in bear country, driving cross-country, flying around the world, or any other research activity that allows me the opportunity to learn about something so that I may write about it with authority. For me, that’s what writing what you know is all about. It’s about learning how to tell a story so that your reader remains in the story and doesn’t pull back because they sense (or identify) the lack of authenticity.

a man thinking statue
Rodin's The Thinker

One of the things I’ve discovered over my many years of writing is that the older I get the more I learn about the emotions and feelings and the various plot twists in my life that I was naïve to in my youth. Age has graciously (and often painfully) provided me with the fodder I needed to write more compelling fiction. The pain of a broken heart, while devastating socially, is fabulous for writing. Breaking someone else’s heart provides the flip side of that same coin, including—but not limited to—the guilt, sorrow, confusion, and perhaps feelings and understandings of freedom now available to you as a writer (and, perhaps, person). That said, material can come from anywhere.

Working at a job you love (or hate) is material for writing what you know. An abusive parent is material, as is a parent who has either passed away, abandoned the family, or stoically remained in an unhappy marriage for fifty years, smiling all the way (or lashing out because of their unhappiness). With these experiences come feelings and emotions that you can translate into your writing, because you “know” how they made you feel as they happened. Pain is experience. Fear is experience. Disappointment is experience. Everything that makes you feel, that provides you truth, that gives you the experience of how something really is, is fodder for your writing.

“If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

--Nikki Giovanni

This autobiographical material, however, limits you, in my opinion, just as the Nikki Giovanni quote above expresses, however indirectly. My novel, THE LOSSES, published in 2016, allowed me to write not only about a Bavarian-style town I knew in northeast Georgia (the town of Helen, GA) and East Islip, NY, where I went to high school, but also about the workings and bureaucracy of the advertising and marketing agency world in which I had worked for many years as a project manager and later director of operations. While I may not be permanently done with those topics, I feel, for now, that I’ve gotten it out of my system.

woman walking out of a door while boyfriend watches
Breaking Up is Hard to Do - but Great for Writing

The other six novels I’ve written all deal with different things that I “know.” While they aren’t published yet (I’m hopeful they’ll find a home), my interests have diverged significantly from my first-hand knowledge and towards subjects like the Spanish Civil War, mental health, a WWII bomber pilot’s return home to Colorado in the mid-1940s, fascism in America, and other things I find interesting. For these topics, I had to do a lot of research—enough, anyway, so that I could write authoritatively about them. Readers know when you’re bullshitting them, especially about factual events. So, know what you’re writing about, or learn about it. There are no shortcuts to this. Not if you want your fiction to be credible.

Of course, there are great writers out there who disagree on the rules or at least buck them, as Kazuo Ishiguro does.

“Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.”

--Kazuo Ishiguro: Don’t Write What You Know

Now, I’m no Kazuo Ishiguro, but like I said above, great writers know how to break the rules, and they do. I think Ishiguro is wrong here, or at least his quote falls short. I don’t believe he actually believes what he was quoted as saying; I think he’s taking it too literally, if he indeed believes that. I forget who said it, but a famous writer (and I am paraphrasing horribly here) said something to the effect of, “By the time you’re ten years old (or so) you have enough material to write.” While that may be a little bit of an exaggeration, the point is made.

“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl [after being told to write what I knew] was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open.”

--Zoë Heller: Write What You Really Know, from the Bookends column in the New York Times

man crying into a tissue
Grief Sucks - But You Can Use it in Your Fiction to Great Effect

How many of us remember when we were that young? Do you remember the grief you had when your dog died? The trauma you felt going to a new school? Your first crush? I do. And all of these things still resonate in the writing I do today. They made a lasting impression on me, and because I went through them myself and experienced them myself, I know how these things feel, and so I’m able to write authoritatively about them. And that’s your job when it comes to “writing what you know.” It doesn’t mean you can’t write about space travel or the Khmer Rouge or being president of the United States. It just means you have to have done the research to get the facts right for your readers, because if they’re picking up your book, if they’re spending their hard-earned cash and placing that bet on you, they deserve for you to have given your all in ensuring they’re going into a world that is not only interesting, but that makes sense.

“A lot of people say, “write what you know.” I feel like it is so difficult to stay intellectually engaged for a year or two in a subject. You should write something that you need to go and learn about. Make the writing process a learning process for you.”

--Dan Brown

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Jon Tobey
Jon Tobey
29 thg 5, 2023

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I think "write what you know" ultimately comes down to the theme of your story. The truth that lies in the heart of any good story. That can apply to innumerable plots, genres, or milieus.

Cully Perlman
Cully Perlman
29 thg 5, 2023
Phản hồi lại

That’s the beauty and enigma of writing what you know—the definition is as subjective and amorphous as the experience a reader extracts from a work of fiction.

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