Write What You Know, Yes Or No?

Ah, yes, that old chestnut.

“Write what you know.”

A bit vague, innit?

Do we even know what it means? Is it suggesting that we should only write the things we ourselves have experienced? Perhaps it’s saying to write only those things we know in our hearts. Then again, it could be a direction to do your research: what you know is what you learn, and you learn best from sitting down and doing your homework.

What I do know is that this old writer’s commandment has been trotted out time and time again. Long has the writer been dragged to this old tablet. Long has someone pointed a waggling finger at it, silently saying, “This. This is one of the commandments.” If we do not accept it, then our nose is shoved in it — or, rather, across it, the tip of the writer’s sniffer dragged across the peaks and valleys of cracked stone as it inhales the worldly and archaic dust of a rather antediluvian piece of advice.

The big question is: is it even good advice?

Space Unicorns, Dragon Uncles, And A Parallel Dimension In My Underpants

Turns out, when you think about it, the list of Things I Cannot Actually Know is pretty fucking long. I can’t know what it’s like to be a soldier in the Iraq War. I definitely can’t know what it’s like to be a soldier in World War I, or the Peloponnesian Wars, or the Thog Clan Wars battling over the Yellow Monkey Forest. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Samurai, a Renaissance artist, an Islamic scholar, a Latvian prostitute, or Charles Darwin. (…Okay, I maybe know a little something about being a Latvian prostitute, but that was a dark time in my life, man, a dark time.) I damn sure can’t know the things that lurk purely in the realm of imagination — I have never ridden a space unicorn, my uncle is not an ancient dragon, and I have not yet discovered an alternate dimension in my boxer shorts no matter how hard I look.

So, according to the Advisory Nugget in question, those things are all off the table, right? Cleaving to the advice closely leaves me little room for all that nonsense.

Except, that’s obviously a dumptruck heaped with bullshit. Authors have told excellent stories based on subjects they cannot know. Robert Heinlein never went into space. Robert McCammon never endured a nuclear apocalypse. Dante didn’t actually wander into Hell. Those guys who wrote the Bible didn’t actually see Jesus fight the Balrog. (That’s in the Bible, right? It’s been a while. I’m pretty sure it’s in there. He’s all like, “Thou Shalt Not Pass, My Son!”) Never seen a School of Wizards. Never met a glittery vampire. Never personally fought a Vatican conspiracy, or an Evil Sewer Clown, or The Riddler.

Ta-da! Advice, disproved! That was easy. It’s party time! Pants off, everybody! My robot butler will be around in just a moment with a tray of cocktails and lube. The boombox is booming. Let’s kick these jams.

Wait. Wuzza? We’re not done here?

Seriously?

So the robot butler has to…?

Sigh.

*programs the robot butler to head back inside with the lubricant and alcohol*

Fine. Let’s keep talking about it.

So, Wait, Is The Advice Bullshit Or Not?

The advice is not bullshit.

*waits for the gasps from the audience to subside*

No, seriously. It’s actually damn good advice. That old chestnut, that archaic commandment, it’s with us for a reason. The Dude Abides, and that advice endures.

But people have been misconstruing that shit for a long, long time. The advice is ambiguous, but it needs to be. It has an unmoored definition, one that floats this way and that, often just out of grasp. It applies differently to different projects. You need to find the proper definition that fits the story you’re telling.

What are the factors?

The Writer Must Learn To Live Life

That’s number one. Writers, as noted on the Oscars last night, have a penchant for turning into “sickly little mole people.” You know it, and I know it. We hunker down in our hovels, our darkened offices, our moistened caves, and we slowly go blind by the stark glow of a computer monitor as we bang out story after story, write tweet after tweet, and watch one gonzo cat video after another. “I can haz clay and fungus for dinner?” one writer asks the scarecrow he’s made out of plastic Target bags stuffed with the crumpled-up manuscripts of months past. Then he uses his quivering star-shaped nose to search out a cockroach that has unwisely ventured into the room.

Experiences mean something. If the sum of our experiences are, say, our Work-In-Progress, our Facebook pages, our video games, our movies, our Other People’s Books, then we don’t know jack shit. Is that you? Do you fit that definition? Take a good, long look. You might either want to start leaving the house more often or decide that this isn’t the career for you. If that’s the summation of your “life experience,” then I assure you, your work will be pale and sad, as sickly as the mole person you are. Further, it will be derivative. Because all you know is other people’s work. You’re bringing nothing of your own to the table.

That means, get out of the house. I’m not saying you have to leave a life of adventure. You don’t have to fight lions or race snowmobiles or join up as a sniper in some Burmese drug lord’s army. But seriously, go do some shit. Go to the park. Listen to the way people talk. Head to the zoo and watch the animals. At the grocery store, marvel at the colors, the sounds, the smells. Get on a roller coaster. Hit up a flea market. Drive to a nearby town, one you’ve never been to, and just take some fucking notes.

Get away from the computer. Put down that video game. Exit your cave.

And, yes, once in awhile, attempt to have an actual adventure. Go on a vacation. Flee the safety of your firelight and your comfort zone. Hell, we went to Hawaii, which was equally out of my comfort zone and squat in the center of it. It was outside the zone because travel makes me anxious, because I don’t like the beach, because I’m mildly hydrophobic, because it’s a place I’ve never been. It was inside the zone because, fuck, it’s Hawaii. But even still, I was able to take away so much. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the warm air, the weirdness of the culture, the way that you’ll pass a really nice house and it sits next to a ramshackle tin shed that somebody calls home, the way that lava has burned over whole towns but left a few patches of grass and even a few houses standing. Before I went to Hawaii, if I had attempted to write about Hawaii, it would’ve been all wrong. I had the wrong impression. Now that I’ve been there? I can write about it. No, not the same way that someone who lives there could write about it. But dangit, it’s a start.

(By the way, this is an issue that has gone back quite a ways. Chaucer — himself a character in his own Canterbury Tales — had self-deprecating concerns over the writer’s life versus the experiences of others. Truth is, Chaucer had a pretty interesting life, but this was still a fear of his. That, though, is a post for another time.)

Every Apple Has Its Core

Your story has a core. A seed. An essence. That’s sounds like some hippy-dippy stuff, but it’s true. Every tale has a center. A beating heart. It has that thing you’re trying to say. Find the core. Find the thing that will give your story the energy it needs, the feel you want, the driving authenticity that will elevate the narrative.

We’ll talk a little more about authenticity below.

For now, what I’m urging you to do is to pair your life experiences with the core of your narrative.

No, you cannot live the relationship between a samurai and his daimyo. But you can know it. What was your relationship with your father like? Your mother? Your boss? Draw from one or all of those. Find the emotional core. Find the authenticity.

No, you will never live on a mining base on the made-up planet of Cockspore Seven. But you can know the people there. You can know the experience. My family comes from a line of coal miners. Further, I can go visit the towns that are still mining towns. My grandfather died of black lung. Hell, those towns have their own language, the “coal cracker” slang (dictionary here, if you don’t believe me). To find the authenticity, I’m both drawing from my own family and my own life and further doing a little “get out of my cave” research. I’d drive to the town. I’d spend a day. I’d take copious notes. I’d get out of my comfort zone and actually talk to somebody — and trust me, I do not like talking to people. People are weird. They might have knives. And Chloroform. Hell, I do. So why wouldn’t they?

No, I’ve never killed a man with a proton rifle. But I’ve killed animals with one of your so-called “Earth weapons.” I remember the stink of gunpowder. I remember the exhilaration and sadness in equal measure (yes, I killed something! oh shit, I killed something!). I remember the way the weapon kicked. I remember the ringing in my ears. I can bring some of that to the table. I can endeavor to make it authentic.

The Fact About Authenticity

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: strive for authenticity, but you can go ahead and fuck facts in the face. What matters is the sense of reality, not the actual reality. That something feels real rather than how something is real. (Example: In real life, let’s say I’m lucky enough to triumph over adversity by winning the lottery. In fiction, that’s a shitty story. Further, it’s a story I don’t believe. “How convenient,” I’ll say between quaffs of whisky. “That right there is a Deus Ex Machina,” I’ll mutter to my homemade office scarecrow slumped in the corner before pissing my pants yet again. Doesn’t matter that the lottery story happened. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel authentic. Hence, my groggy drunken pee-soaked rage.)

This is central to the piece of advice in question, by the way. Pairing that old chestnut with the notion that we’re striving for authenticity over fact clarifies the commandment. The advice then carries with it some unspoken addenda. Write what you know is not beholden to fact. It’s not married to those things you have literally experienced. It is married, however, to how you bring your experiences to the table.

You will never ride a space unicorn.

But you can ride a horse. Can’t be that different. Haven’t ridden a horse before? Read up on the topic and then call around and see if you can’t get on one of those animals — just to see how it feels and what kinds of behaviors the horse might exhibit.

You will never have a Dragon Uncle.

But maybe you had a weird uncle. Or had a friend with a weird uncle. And you can read up on iguanas. Then you can go to the pet store and watch how the lizards move. One-two punch: your own weird uncle plus iguana = Dragon Uncle!

You will never find a parallel dimension in your underpants.

But you have underpants. Stick your hands down there. Root around, then write about it. And you can read about parallel dimensions. And you know what it’s like to be in an awkward situation, in places where you don’t fit, where things don’t feel right — we’ve all had moments like that, haven’t we? (Of course we have. We’re mole people.) Borrow it. Use it. Find the core.

Can you make shit up? Yes! That’s fiction! That’s the fun of fiction! I love to make shit up. But making shit up can be bolstered by a foundation of authenticity — invisible, undetectable by the audience, but still the thing that holds your imagination aloft and makes it feel real.

(Oh, and let me say it one more time: turn off the video game and exit your home. Listen to the goddamn birds. Watch old people fight. Attack a neighbor with a rake. Whatever it takes. Plus, you need some sun. Seriously. You get vitamins from that shit. Your skin looks like bleached vellum, for Christ’s sake. You’re scaring the dogs. For realsies. Scaring the poop right out of their butts.)

31 comments

  • Once again, Sir, your timing is impeccable.

    Off to take the kids out again and do some more thinking. Without burying myself inside my head.

  • So for those of us writing tech-focused SF, for example, there are some things we do know: We know about current tech (or we should, anyway). We know a little more now about how society changes when tech inserts itself as an intermediary into human relationships. And, theoretically (to your point here) we should have a decent idea about various human relationships.

    So I’m working on a little novella that centers around a man who suddenly finds himself re-acquainted with an old girlfriend, the fabled “one that got away”. And he’s unsure how much is real and how much is fed by his augmented reality setup, because, you know, he’s into some weird mess.

    I’ve never been that dude. I (sadly) don’t have a cybernetic ocular implant plugged into a planetwide semi-intelligent information grid… unless you count my Crackberry. But I have a clue about how AR works, and I’ve seen (and experienced) what happens when we conduct relationships of various sorts through electronic means, and I sure know what it’s like to realize you screwed up years ago and let a relationship wither that shouldn’t have withered.

    So I use those things, plug in a bit of imagination, stir with speculation about hive minds and high-tech mafias, and hopefully come out with something people will enjoy reading.

    • Kyle:

      Fine. Fine! Oh, aren’t we cocky? Aren’t we special? How nice it must be to say what I said over again, except, y’know, erm, using like, approximately 1500 less words to do so.
      :)

      No, no, I’m just messing with you. Well-said. That’s the thing. The advice to write what you know is important, but that advice can be dangerously misunderstood and misapplied.

      The best thing we can do is find the element of the story where we bring ourselves and our experiences to the table. It needn’t be a perfect 1:1 ratio.

      Sounds like you got it nailed down. Good stuff, dude.

      – c.

  • Spot on. If I had me a big-ass revival tent and a white suit, I’d be preaching pretty much the same damn thing. I generally rephrase the rule to “Know what you write.” Way less passive that way, and more of a challenge to go and fucking LEARN something. To pick it up, examine it, absorb it. It’s all about the essence of the matter, or, to put another way, about wholeheartedly BELIEVING in your own lies, and in making sure those lies just work. (As someone who spent an adolescence lying to my parents, I learned long ago that’s key.)

    Oh,and for God’s sake, no more writer protags, people.

  • Capital!

    I usually rephrase this to “Don’t write what you don’t know” because writing what you don’t know leads to a lack of authenticity and wall-banging moments by people who actually know what you’re trying to write about, but I like this explanation, and Chris’s rephrasing, better.

  • I typed this before I read the post, so my opinion is undiluted by whatever yours happens to be. Just so you know. There’s a Kanye West joke in here somewhere, but I was up too late watching the Oscars last night, and I had an early morning ultrasound and bloodwork, and I’m tired, so yeah. I’m not going to make it. Just assume I did, and we’ll move on.

    I’m of two minds on the whole “write what you know” camp. The way most people hold it up, it’s a venerated, venerable truism of writing that must be adhered to at all times and all costs. Yet people don’t seem to want to make room for the notion that, if people wrote what they knew, and only what they knew, most sci-fi novels, movies, beloved fantasy worlds, etc, wouldn’t exist.

    On the other hand, I’m also of the opinion that writing what you don’t know isn’t worth it either. I could start spouting off facts about blue whale migration patterns (weird search term #1) or dissert on why dogs that eat their own crap (weird search term #2) are healthier than shit-eating humans (#3), and while I could probably come up with what I think would be entertaining essays on the subjects, I don’t really know anything about them, so anyone with even a modicum of interest who fact-checks me will quickly see I’m full of shit, and any credibility I had, I will lose.

    I guess my two cents on the question is: don’t write what you know. Research what you don’t know. And there’s no excuse for it, really. With all the ease and accessibility of research tools nowadays, there’s absolutely no reason that someone can’t set their story in a place they’ve never been, and not have gone to the place’s visitor’s site, or Wiki entry, or Google Earth streetmap and learned all they need to know about it.

    It’s not about writing what you know; it’s about knowing what you write.

    Suppose I’ll go back and read your article now. If I must.

    • You must.

      The thing that the article will (ideally) make clear:

      Research is only a part of it. A good part of it, but a part of it.

      I’m not a world traveler, but I’ve been a couple interesting places — Ireland, LA, SF, Boston, Hawaii, ghost towns in Colorado, whatever. Trying to write those before I went there? I wouldn’t capture it. I wouldn’t get it right. I might get it “in the ballpark” enough to be serviceable, but being there, going there, having that experience? It lends a greater depth, a deeper sense of authenticity. I know what those places *feel* like now — it’s not about street sign placement, not just about facts and data, but about the whole enchilada.

      Now, that doesn’t mean if I make up a planet, I’m fucked, because I’ll never set foot on Imaginary Planet. It just means that I’m likelier to borrow imagery from my own experiences and travels to populate that. Because then I *do* know what it’s like to set foot on that place. I’ve captured some manner of authenticity. I’ve found the essence of it. I’ve borrowed some other part of my life and quietly renamed it “Imaginary Planet.”

      Research will only get you so far. Good for quick stuff, broad strokes and factual information — but it helps to find an experiential baseline.

      – c.

  • Yes, I did must. Must have did?

    You have much of the same opinion I do. I fully understand and wholeheartedly agree with the idea of putting current life experiences into context for your stories, no matter if they’re set on a desert island or in the frozen north or in a universe far, far away.

    One of my works in progress is a story about a girl who’s shoved into the middle of a supernatural world and war that she had no idea about, with a brand new nature that she can’t control and quite frankly scares the shit out of her. Now, I’ve never been a 20-year-old werewolf, but I -have- been a 20-year-old college student. I -have- felt out of place in my own body, uncomfortable in my skin and awkward. And I -have- felt fear and worry and the kind of sheer rage that could easily translates into the sort of primality I need to portray.

    My experience with people … how did you put it? *scrolls up* … dragging my sniffer “across the peaks and valleys of cracked stone as it inhales the worldly and archaic dust of a rather antediluvian piece of advice” (which is very nicely worded, by the way) has been precisely as I indicated: I shouldn’t write anything I don’t know, ever at all. I should never try to use settings I’ve never experienced first-hand, no matter how similar they may be to places I -have- been and how much I can supplement that with research.

  • I never liked that old chestnut. It stinks too much of an adage for working within what the Realist fiction school considers acceptable fiction — only novels that hold a withering lens to the banality of modern life are worth writing.

    And if it really means “don’t write stuff you don’t understand because it will turn out to be crap,” then just say “don’t write crap”.

    But then, I’d support a Philip K. Dick-style writing rule that said “write what you gno” (as in gnosis).

    • @Bill, @Maggie –

      That’s my ultimate point, I think. As an adage, it’s worded too tersely, and used as an excuse to justify why writers should remain boxed in.

      But that doesn’t mean we should throw the advice away, or that there isn’t value in it. The value is present; we just have to know what it means and how to use it.

      – c.

  • As long as people are saying how do they re-chestnut the phrase, here’s how I do it: “pisz z życia”. That’s “write from life” for you poor Polish-impaired people (you’re missing out on a simple writing system, multiple cases for nouns and the ability to create ANYTHING by adding preposition to it! Learn it! Love it! Live it!).

    What I mean by that is: no matter what the genre, it will always benefit from having actions and reaction you’ve seen in real life.

    • @Will –

      Then I assume you will write nothing. (Were you hoping for a better answer?)

      @Justin –

      I make of it that you *do* know vampires. Not literally, but that’s my point. Take the advice literally (as I suspect Will is doing), and it’ll damn you. “I don’t know space unicorns, thus I can never write about space unicorns.” But, you can know (or understand, or intuit, or grasp, or whatever verb it is that gives you a happy) what it is that makes space unicorns authentic. You can borrow from your life, from the real world, from research, to create an authentic version of That Thing.

      Vampires don’t literally exist, but we’ve all known people we might call “vampires,” or who possess the qualities of certain Daeva, Ventrue, or Nosferatu. They’re an imaginary thing that has to feel real, has to feel authentic, otherwise the concept is left with empty spaces. That’s what you bring to the table. The things you “know” will fill in those empty spaces.

      – c.

  • I’ll never forget a book I read, many moons ago, that I finished simply as an object lesson in how *not* to write. For starters, the whole thing was obviously taken from the author’s RPG sessions. And while we know that stories can be told in different forms for different methods of delivery the route of RPG session to novel (as in “That was so fun! Someone should write a book about that!”) is one that does not often yield premium results.

    On top of that sin, however, was compounded the sin of being *too* realistic without being authentic. The story had, you see, flying horses. And the author, or someone in their game, or someone close to them was a naval aviator. So the horses were stabled at the top of towers. You rode them in a prone position. They took off by being launched out the side of the tower on sliding platforms. They landed on the flat top of the tower which had ropes pulled taut across it so the landing horses’ hooves would catch them and jerk them to a stop.

    “Real,” but oh so very, very wrong.

  • Exactly, Chuck. Unless you know your material, you won’t write anything. The better you know it, the more of it you can write, and better. Confidence is part of the point; it’s not just “write what you know” but “know what you write.” If you’re writing, you must know something, the trick is getting your writing to line up with what you know.

    If what you know is the anguish of a childhood divorce, then put your space unicorn through similar anguish. If what you know is inter-office politics, turn that into interstellar politics. Write with confidence in your own experience. Everyone has lived, but not everyone knows they’ve lived.

  • It’s a shame the guy who wrote the Bible didn’t see the Jesus/Balrog throwdown because it was EPIC.

    I feel this advice. I don’t just read & understand it, no – I *feel* it. I’ve never ridden dragons or gone faster than the speed of light or hung out with demons or powered airships with steam. But I’ve learned a lot in my life, some of it the hard way, and I hope that in my writing I can teach as much as entertain.

  • I don’t have anything helpful, but there are a list of things I want people to stop writing about (TV, I’m looking at you) since they never ever seem to *know* it.

    Childbirth,
    Normal, run of the mill pregnancy,
    Men with healthy Attitudes toward women. (they exist, I know a few.)
    Gardening. Yes, really.

    I’m sure there are others, and everyone has their own list, but I think there’s a danger in ignoring the literal side of the chestnut. Just thinking out loud here.

    • You want people to *stop* writing about men with healthy attitudes toward the ladies?

      Far as childbirth goes — what are the stories failing to “get” in regards to it? (I can hazard a guess, but… er, I’ve never done it, so I figure you have far more accurate info).

      – c.

  • As a male who likes to believe he has a healthy attitude towards women (and wants more men like that, in part since he has a daughter who will someday have to deal with those men), I would like to see more writing like that.

    Perhaps Filamena means that some folks writing about such attitudes don’t actually have them, and thus misrepresent what we should consider “healthy”?

    I have no idea about the gardening deal, but I have no real plans to ever write about it, either.

  • ROFL! Yes, great post! And yes, we need to get out and experience! (And being next to a horse and trying to get on it for the first time! OMG! Those things are tall! And riding the thing! Eek!) Totally agree about the kernel and as much as we can experience to add to that the better. The hard part is actually remembering the feelings, the smells, the sensations of things learned. Sometimes you have to dig deep to get them back. :P

  • Oh, there’s lots of stuff TV glosses over when it comes to pregnancy. I mean, I could give you a list, but honestly Chuck, I like you. You seem like a good guy. I don’t want to horrify you, or gross you out, or make you want to curl up and gibber in a corner, unable to unsee what you’ve already seen.

    Suffice to say that it’s never, ever as simple as your water breaks, let’s go to the hospital and have a baby in 30 minutes or your delivery’s free. There’s a LOT of stuff they don’t tell you. A LOT OF STUFF.

    Maybe Rick hates you enough to enlighten you. But you’re ay-okay by me, so Imma spare you the brainsplosions.

    • Oh, I saw that Nova episode from PBS like, 15 years ago. I’ve seen the whole… birth process. I know the vagina doesn’t fare so well. I know sometimes “pooping the bed” is on the agenda.

      The thing is, though — and this is probably a separate discussion, but hey, I love tangents! — fiction generally glosses over a lot. Especially television and film. Actually, maybe this does speak to my point a little bit — Real Life and Fiction don’t necessarily play well together.

      Some shows or movies, you don’t want the entirety of the second act taken up with the grotesque vagaries of birth. You either skip it, or you hit the high points. I don’t know that anybody is really taken in by the myth of “Birth = Easy,” are they? I’ve never had a kid, and I know it doesn’t work like that. Some degree of “nod and smile” is acceptable with fiction, though, right?

      I will give credit to The Office earlier this week. While I wouldn’t suggest they went into the full bore endeavor that is human birth, they did make it feel more authentic — the baby born was small, it cried, it wouldn’t nurse. They played out a lot of the smaller details (admittedly for comedy and tension, but.. well, that’s fiction, everything must have a purpose), and it was interesting to see.

      – c.

  • It’s not even so much about the birth itself as the sheer difficulty pregnancy has on the body. It might be just the hormones talking — and boy, is that a whacky rollercoaster ride of homicidal bipolar fun — but it’s just about everything portrayed in entertainment or fictional mediums. From energy levels to weight gain to swelling ankles/feet/hands/cheeks and the inability to properly shave one’s legs without running the risk of accidentally crippling oneself by slashing tendons. No, I suppose no one wants to really see a down-and-dirty, grittily-real pregnancy and delivery… I don’t, and I’m about to go finish it all off for the third time… but more than the “oh, let’s just shove a basketball under her shirt and indicate no other changes” would be nice once in awhile. It’s (again, possibly just the hormones but it feels) insulting, in a lot of ways.

    And yeah, people fall into these myths in other mediums, especially when they haven’t gone through the process either first- or second-hand themselves. Hell, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t know, that TV and movies and books had built my expectations a certain way for, and I was given a very harsh crash course in reality during my first delivery.

    Your bit about The Office hits the nail on the head for me: it isn’t about being perfectly, flawlessly, seamlessly real. It’s about adding a few extra things to make it feel authentic. Whether that goes for the male who has a healthy attitude towards women (and often in TV shows and books, they’re either too perfect or completely unbelievable as characters, which I think is what Filamena was getting at) or childbirth or normal pregnancies or what have you.

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