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.
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…