What’s so problematic about “write what you know?”
I swear, sometimes in writing circles, these are fighting words.
Mark Twain famously gave this advice. And in the context of who he was (um, very famous for his fictionalized accounts of his boyhood on the Mississippi River) and the time period in which he lived (yeah, so authors in the late 19th century were just dipping their literary toe into fantasy) this made a lot of sense. He also had his own sales figures to contend with: his books Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were commercially successful. His more fantastic stories, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper were not. If you were sitting on Mark Twain’s porch in Hannibal, Missouri in 1890, asking for good writing advice, he would have totally said, “write what you know, son!”
I also think that the imaginative progression of literature through the 20th and 21st centuries can create literary snobs.
We write in entirely different contexts that Twain. We run the risk of taking this advice too literally, too rigidly, and too seriously.
I think we can all agree that writers should not limit our writing to only our own experiences. But if we don’t know what to write, it is perfectly okay to refer to the familiar. That neighborhood you played in as a kid. The taste of chocolate almond ice cream on a hot summer night. The smell of your sixth-grade classroom. There is nothing wrong with returning to what you remember. In some respects, your own experiences can add a vividness and depth that a fully imaginative paragraph won’t.
And then there’s the business of emotions. Your deepest darkest emotions are part of who you are — they can show up in your prose. If you’ve felt a pain of any kind, you can articulate this pain into your prose. Of course, you lived heartache — so you can make your sad words effective ones. You probably never accidentally stabbed your friend because you thought that he was really your uncle who had recently married your mother right after your father died, right? But you have been betrayed. So you can get Hamlet. Shakespeare did too.
And then there are these little composite touches. Your heroine is a bit like your first boyfriend, but he’s also kind of like your boss and he has a gallant streak like your husband. Because you have had relationships, both bad and good, you have vast resources to draw from. If you are a wise writer, you realize that you need to make your hero more interesting than your first boyfriend who grew up to be an accountant. You make him a professional cheese sculptor instead.
In this article, author Jason Gots suggests that “write what you know” is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of writing advice ever.” I agree with him. He suggests that writers fall into a trap of thinking that unless they’ve experienced it first hand, they shouldn’t tap into their imaginations or speculate on something they’re not familiar with.
Back in 2007 or so, I was doing a little research on what it as like to be a Pastor’s kid. The main character in my book was a lonely, frustrated twenty-something who resented the fact that the only job opportunity she had was as a church secretary in her father’s church. She was hardly a believer, so I was hoping for some good conflict. I chose this topic to write about because even though I was not a pastor’s kid, I grew up in a church and my parents were active enough that I saw the ins and outs of church life. I hadn’t first-hand experience with what it was to be a PK, but I had a pretty good idea. To enhance my understanding (and to procrastinate writing about it) I found an online group for pastor’s kids. I approached a couple of women and asked them if I could pick their brain.
One got very angry and defensive. Her claim was because I had never been there, I “had no right” to write about it. My response to her was that I didn’t believe that Shakespeare was ever a lovesick teenage girl in Verona. He still wrote Romeo and Juliet. She didn’t like my argument but said she’d help me if I promised a free book. I found someone else to help me.
My point is that I think that a good writer shouldn’t be afraid to explore new points of view and create imaginative worlds.
I also think that when we as readers start pointing our fingers to writers and claim that they are “playing it safe” by turning to the events and people they once knew, then we’re hardly helpful.
As you grow in your craft, you’ll learn how to twist your own experiences around to the perfect story. You’ll be inspired by those people who can tap into the fascinating things they do know. You’ll be amazed by the worlds that imaginative writers can create — what they don’t know.
So take this advice, “write what you know,” just like you take all writing advice. Take it with the smallest grain of salt. Be comfortable with who you are. Don’t look at what others do, or what others expect from you.
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Thanks for coming by today!
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.