Write What You Know: Roasting That Old Chestnut

Write What You Know.

So says the advice.

Four words. A tiny prescription.

But like the TARDIS, it’s much bigger on the inside.

That piece of advice is one of the greatest and worst writing advice nuggets in the history of all writing advice nuggets. It’s brilliant! And it’s right! And it’s frustrating! And it’s wrong! It’s open to ten kinds of interpretation. It can be a springboard to launch you through a story. Boing! Or it can be the wall you hit. BOOM.

It contains multitudes.

I’ve spoken about it before.

And I want to speak about it again.

Here, then, are five recent thoughts on the subject. Do with them as you will: read them, respond, rub them on your nude flesh, stomp on them as if they were skittering roaches.

Better Written As “Write What You Understand?”

On the strictest read, Write what you know sounds like a command to commit to paper only those facts and events you have personally experienced or studied — you played baseball, you studied the Revolutionary War, you’re an astrophysicist, and so all your stories must weave in these three things lest you be writing from a place of dire inauthenticity where readers will be able to smell your bullshit from 100 yards and they’ll pull your shirt over your head and laugh at you as the neighborhood dog humps your supine form. This is nonsense, of course: writing fiction as autobiography is limiting and boring.

But the advice can’t mean that. How absurd would that be?

It’s not about what facts you know.

It’s about a deeper understanding.

What it is, I think, is that in the writing of fiction — whether you’re writing about a broken marriage, a troubled assassin, a tribal war between the moonicorns and the comet-ponies — you’ll be writing about moments that will be strengthened by drawing on elements of your life. It’s about the things you understand, not merely the things you “know.” You understand what it’s like to come from a broken home. Or to fix a tractor. You remember losing your virginity, or your first taste of alcohol, or that time you killed a guy with a box full of syphilis-mad weasels. You get things. You internally understand stuff that is both specific to you but that also draws an emotional and intellectual bridge out to a larger readership — like, somewhere in your life you probably experienced heartbreak. The way you understand it is implicitly your own, but at the same time, nearly everyone has some explicit understanding of love torn asunder.

Your job, then, is to draw from that — to plunge a narrative hypodermic down through the amber casement of your memory and suck out the sweet DNA so you can inject it into your story. It’s not hewing only to facts. It’s about finding those moments from your life that will enrich your fiction with deeper, stranger, more personal — and yet potentially also more universal – details. You are, in a sense, trying to breed emotional familiarity through intellectual honesty.

You’re tying a moment in your story to some understanding from your own life. Which means you’re tethering yourself to the audience — placing your story in a context they can understand, in a way that enlivens the narrative and maybe speaks to their own experiences, as well.

We’re not supposed to steal from other people’s work.

But we can steal from history. From mythology.

And even better, from our own lives. WE CAN STEAL OUR OWN MEMORIES AND TURN THEM INTO MEAT FOR THE STORY MACHINE.

How fucking awesome is that?

Watching My Wife Read My Work

My wife, as a spouse is wont to do, will read my work, often next to me in bed at night. (She’s also a fantastic editor, by the by.) And as she reads, sometimes I’ll catch a movement of her head and I’ll notice a sly, sideways glance in my direction. And when this occurs, I know why.

It’s because she just found a moment in the story she knows is true.

Even though it’s a fake-ass made-up bullshit-ride of a story, she finds things in there that she knows are true. Moments snatched from my life and plugged into the fiction. Sometimes it’s a small thing: a word, a turn of phrase, an article of clothing, a taste of food. Other times it’s taking a story or a piece of one from my life and finding the appropriate contextual slot to cram it into. It’s maybe 10-20% of a book (more in some cases, less in others), almost a kind of storytelling punctuation, but I think the real value is that you’re putting yourself on the page.

You are there in the story.

Not as a character.

But as a ghost, haunting over the narrative proceedings.

A Key To A Locked Door

Many authors treat write what you know as a punishment levied against them. Like it’s a problem. But rather, I like to think it’s a solution to a problem — a key, in fact, to a locked door.

Consider: you hit your head on something in the story. Some plot point. Some low-hanging story obstacle. You don’t know how to move forward with a character, or a theme, or whatever. The maze seems unsolvable; the labyrinth, closed. So: look to your own life. It’s never a guaranteed solution, but you may find that something in your life, your history, answers the problem. A person you know. A thing you experienced. A feeling you understand with great intensity.

Sometimes, you are the key to the door.

And you are the sum of the things you know.

An Admonishment To Know More

If we assume that part of it really is about facts — like, say, “Don’t write about the Civil War unless you actually know some shit about the Civil War, dingbat” — then we can safely say that write what you know is not a restriction on your writing, but rather a suggestion that you can always know more, dumbass. Go learn more stuff! And write about it.

Or Perhaps: Write What You Love

Maybe value also exists in saying that we should write not just to our experiences and our understanding, but also to the things about which we feel passionate about. Maybe it means we should lean toward those things that we love (and to an opposite degree, the things that we hate, that cause us pain, that scare the Holy Jesusballs out of us), including them in our work. Or, to a lesser degree, the things that interest us. In school, we tend to do better in subjects we like, and I suspect the same is true in our fiction: we probably tell better stories when we’re writing about things we dig (and we probably know more about the things we dig, too).

So. There you go. Five slapdash thoughts.

Awaiting your own in 3… 2… 1…

56 comments

  • Well said. It’s a frustrating piece of advice, because oh so often, budding writers use it as an excuse to avoid taking any risks with their writing. But if you dissect what it really means, the saying makes more sense on emotional level.

    And who was it who actually said this first? Mark Twain?

  • “a tribal war between the moonicorns and the comet-ponies”

    “Tuttle and Europa” by Biefeld Brown: The story of two star-crossed bodies destined to collide but are from cultures that are worlds apart. Critical expectations have been stellar, but will the novel achieve the popularity supernova that’s expected or will it disappear into the black hole of obscurity and 50-cent bins? A tale for the eons; light years ahead of any other! The discovery that love’s endeavour can conquer any challenger! Coming next summer to an astrological reference and crappy space pun near you!

    And now for something actually relevant: I’ve always liked the sentiment, “write what you know.” After I looked at my life with this phrase in mind it helped me realize how interesting my life and experiences have been when I had previously thought that it was pretty boring. I agree that, semantically speaking, “write what you understand” it a more accurate and unambiguous phrase and I think I’ll start saying that instead. :)

  • Totally agree, like so many maxims, write what you know should not be taken at face value. I believe good writing comes from good story telling, so if you happen to have some anecdote you like to whip out at Christmas parties about that one time you rode a camel through downtown Cleveland or whatever, that’s probably good story fodder. Also, yes, I’ve learned to bring my personal experiences into my stories, which is probably why my characters are so messed up. It’s also what makes them believable and possibly relatable… I think.
    You’re the man Chuck

  • Excellent advice. I’ve always taken write what you know to be about emotional honesty. So in a sense all my characters react to things the way I would, except that, on the whole by the time I’ve finished, it’s not the way I’d react at all. I suppose it’s more if I was feeling this would I do a, b, or c? It’s taken me about 13 years to get that to work and I’m still working on it.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Abso-flippin’ lutely. ‘Write what you know’ only becomes a restriction if you put boundaries on the definition of ‘what you know.’

    Took me many years to get the guts to use my own experiences of emotional pain in my work though – and I still struggle a bit with it. Even if I put it in a completely different context I get this ‘do I have the right to be covertly dumping my personal crap on my readers?’ kind of guilt. I know writing can also be therapy, but I wouldn’t want anything I’d written to be like that in a self-indulgent way.

    But yeah, ‘what you know’ should NEVER be taken completely literally, especially now we have the magicky-but-dark-hearted internet thingy. My current w-i-p is set in New York, for example. I’ve never been there in my life (commute is too long from Kent in the UK) but thanks to Google Earth/Streetview and various other sites I’ve ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ areas of it that most tourists don’t even know about. (Seeing a video on YouTube and ‘recognising’ a place where it’s filmed even though you’ve never been there in your life + recognising that place correctly = very weird feeling indeed.)

  • Having enough trouble writing about what I know and love to even think about the publishing part, which is really sad. I laugh with no money as the golfing world misses out on some real fixes. …..

  • I agree entirely. Nobody knows more about guineapigs living in a kind of mediaeval world that runs on strawberry juice than I do. It’s the application of what I know that counts. I got a little held up at one time because I couldn’t fit real science into the developments in this world. But then I realised that the world had its own science, just has Potter-magic has its own logic. You don’t have to know how it works, but you might have to justify the rules and laws you apply to an equally nerdish nerd like yourself!

  • Write what you want to read. I did not do that in my early days and I hate that. Now I do and while I am skipping the VD laden weasels attacking sparkly Alpha Dom billionaire moonicorns that seem to instantly sell books, I am much more content in myself (now that I’ve rubbed these into my naked flesh at 6 a.m.) cheers!
    Liz

  • Write what you know? I’m gonna write the best damn novel about a 30-something guy creating management information reports for mid-level academics ever. It’s gonna have loads of chapters about excel pivot tables, walking through the business park to Tesco to buy household goods in my lunch hour, and huge paragraphs about the fluctuating traffic levels on my commute. I’m going to need one of the country’s best literary agents for this tome…

    • Awesome, this 30 something office person would totally read that!! Or write in really close….we could write te sequel together…I think brains would explode! :)

      • Yeah, explode with boredom probably! Actually if it was written in a certain style it could be a comedy due to the weirdos that populate open-plan offices these days…

  • Thank you for expanding upon this old saying. Because often if someone says it to me, it’ll actually bum me out because it means I can’t write about fantastical things like teleportation or shooting fire balls from my palms–because I don’t have much personal experience about the stuff. But as you said, one can learn about these things AND I can always add to these things a dash of things that I do know–my human experience. So, anyway, thanks for this. :-)

  • You are such a shining light. You nuggets of wisdom are ever insightful and inspiring. i love you almost as much as my first cup of coffee in the morning.

  • I was thinking about this last week, which reminds me that one of the greatest things about writing is when someone else says the things you thought, but wasn’t able to express with your own words – not that well, at least.

  • I love this. I also think it’s okay to write what you don’t know, so long as you (or your character) cop to it. It’s fun to write from that perspective.

  • You can also mirror what *other* people know, if you spend time with them and just listen to what they think about, care about, how they interact with the world. One of my favorite reviews speculated that I MUST be a pilot, because I had captured the pilot mindset in my main character and everything she did. I have never flown a plane and can’t even land one in Flight Simulator, but I do have pilot friends I’ve known for years and my father was a hard-core aerodynamic engineer who loved all aspects of aviation.

    And there is nothing quite like the smug, wicked feeling of successfully fooling the reader into thinking you know what you are talking about ;-)

  • This has always been a problem with me. I’m an IT professional working with servers and security all day. It’s what I know. But I write fantisy and historical fiction. I have always gotten down on myself because I’m not writing Sci-fi.

    Thanks for giving me a better prescriptive of what I “know”. There are plenty of things I know that go into those other stories and I shouldn’t have to be stuck in one genre just because that is my day job.

  • I’ve always felt wrapped up in duct tape by “write what you know.” What I know is not interesting–or at least I’m bored with it. What I understand is VASTLY more interesting. Now, syphilis-mad weasels I get.

    I also agree with a previous poster: I often write what I want to know. It often turns into what I don’t want to know but it’s a great way to avoid a cosmic 2 by 4 across the back of the head. Catharsis and revelation.

  • I am embarrassed by how long it took me to realize that “write what you know” wasn’t saying what I thought it was saying. I was all “then how do people write about meeting aliens? or living in a country they’ve never been to? or cutting people up into tiny pieces and keeping them in the freezer in Ziplock baggies carefully disguised to look like chicken leftovers?” And then it dawned on me that it was what you are saying above, Chuck. This is great advice to share.

  • LOL. I’m reminded of a big tiff about 30 years ago. The Latino community in Los Angeles was praising a novel called “Famous All Over Town” by “Danny Santiago” and about how accurate a reflection it was about the Latino experience in LA and how wonderful the author was. Then it was discovered that it was written by an old white guy who lived in Diamond Bar (not a minority-rich community) under a pseudonym. His real name was Daniel Lewis James. Latino activists and groups like MEChA were outraged; they felt that, somehow, they’d been “tricked” by the writer; whereas they had previously lauded him and the book.

    A fiction writer’s craft is to create a believable world inhabited by believeable characters in believeable situations. By that metric, the book succeeded on all counts. Their later reaction exposed the activists as hypocrites, and in no way IMHO invalidated the accuracy and voice of “Famous All Over Town.”

  • This was one bit of “advice” I never got hung up on. I really know very little, but I can make up all kinds of shit that reads authentically. My beta-family-readers always point out the “me” in my characters or situations they recognize that I’ve put in my stories. But most of what I write has very little basis in my “knowing” as much as my apparent ability to become some other persona when I write about them.

    I just got a critique back from my client from her beta readers on a paranormal erotic romance. Most of the comments were about the “true” quality of the characters and events, even a three-way werewolf fight an alley. Never been a werewolf and never been in an alley fight, but I apparently nailed that scene, down to the fetid taste of the diseased werewolf.

    (I do know now how to make chocolate avocado pudding so when I put that in a story, it will be writing what I know…)

  • Totally not helped by my mother having read both Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, where Anne and Jo both write crazed fiction and we readers are gently whacked over the head with the ‘write what you know’ morality piece. My mother has been reminding me of this constantly. Then I watched this video from Mary Higgins Clark who is a hero: http://bit.ly/1884SXS , can we get a ‘LIBERATED’ in the house…

  • What if you don’t have anything to pull it from? By it I mean the emotions. If you want to write about heartbreak, but haven’t really experienced heartbreak, how can you write it?

    • EVERYBODY has experienced heartbreak; it just comes on different levels and in different flavours.

      One person’s heartbreak is losing the love of their life; another’s is getting dropped from their varsity football team. And yet another’s is not being the first person in the world to hit the level cap in World of Warcraft. The circumstances are all wildly different – but factoring in the crazy varieties of humans in this world, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume their pain would be of the same emotional intensity in each situation.

      The trouble starts when you try to ‘rank’ hearkbreak in order of ‘worthiness’: “Well, she lost her husband last week, so that’s definitely the full ten points of heartbreak there… He lost his cat? We-ell, that’s pretty sad, but only seven points for him… He dropped his iphone down the toilet? Pffft, are you KIDDING me, that doesn’t even qualify for a one..!” Human sadness just aint like that. If it hurts like hell, it doesn’t matter WHY, or whether it ‘should’ compared to what other people have been through. it’s heartbreak, and it qualifies.

  • This.

    In all its awesome glory.

    It saddens me that I was born too late (and with the wrong skin type) to be an awesome ninja assassin (or even a bad one, frankly), but I can become a ninja on the page, and THAT is the most fabulous, amazing thing in the world because as a fictitious ninja I ALWAYS WIN. Take THAT, statistics!

    Writing is the best job in the world because it allows the fusion of love, learning, storytelling, and any awesome thing the writer decides to learn enough about to bring it to life on the page.

    Is there anything better?

  • Perfect. These have literally been my thoughts my entire life. The phrase “Write what you know” scares the crap out of me but also really excites me.

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