A common piece of writing advice is write what you know.
When I first heard this advice, I thought it was odd. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I remember thinking that as far as writing tips went, it was absurd.
What about writing from your imagination or your feelings? How do genres like science fiction and fantasy fit into the idea that you should only write what you know?
It all seemed rather limiting. Was I supposed to write about American suburbia? That’s what I knew, and it was the last thing I wanted to write about.
One of the reasons memoir doesn’t appeal to me as a writer is because I don’t want to write what I know. I don’t want to relive my life. I want to use writing to live outside of my life, to explore what I don’t know.
I decided to disregard the advice and write whatever I wanted.
What Does It Mean to Write What You Know?
Over the years, I began to understand that write what you know isn’t one of those writing tips that is meant to be taken literally. It’s not an instruction; it’s a guideline.
Many science-fiction and fantasy novels take us to worlds that many of us might dream about but none could know in the literal sense. Authors draw on our world and on the many fantastical, fictional worlds that already exist in literature. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, we are constantly influenced by what we’ve read, seen, and experienced. The seeds of any contemporary story world might come from Middle Earth, Narnia, or a galaxy far, far away. But we certainly haven’t been to these worlds. They are manifestations of someone else’s imagination.
The most fantastical worlds in storytelling are beloved because they are full of truths. They tell us who we are as individuals and as a society. I would guess that E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, must have known a thing or two about friendship and loyalty because there is truth in the relationships that exist between the characters in the book. Yet there has never been a close friendship between a talking spider and a talking pig! Such a thing is not knowable, but we can draw from our human experiences of relationships to create it on the page.
While flipping back and forth between two channels late at night, Suzanne Collins saw kids competing on reality TV and footage of the war in Iraq. The images blurred in her tired mind, and the Hunger Games were born. She didn’t know a world where children were thrust into an arena to fight to the death. But she could take what she knew (or could learn), add a heap of her own imagination, and render a believable story world.
To write what you know does not mean you only write about experiences you’ve had, people you’ve met, or places you’ve been. It means you use what you know about life, nature, and humanity as the foundation for your stories.
Write What You Want
I believe the best writing is a balanced mixture of what the writer knows and what the writer seeks. Maybe the setting is the writer’s home town and the characters are based on her friends and family, but the plot is completely outside her realm of experience. Maybe the plot is taken from history, which the writer has researched (and therefore knows), but the world in which it is set is drawn from her imagination. Creativity and art are all about combining existing elements in innovative ways.
It is true: you should write what you know, but you should also leave room in writing for the unknown, room to explore and discover new truths, ideas, and possibilities:
- Write what you feel. Use your personal, emotional experiences and share them with the reader through characters you’ve invented. Emotional truths make a piece of fiction honest and compelling.
- Write what you imagine. Let yourself explore a world of possibilities: fantastical beasts, mythical creatures, aliens, and strange, magical worlds.
- Write what you experience. Every experience you’ve had can be translated to fiction. Remember your first day of school? Tweak that experience and give it to one of your characters, even if the character is an elf or an alien.
- Write what interests you. You can write what you know after you’ve learned it. Conduct research about things that interest you and then use those things in your stories. Pull facts and ideas from history, current events, and textbooks.
- Write what matters to you. It goes without saying that your work must matter to you. Write about what moves you, stirs your passion, fills you with joy or rage. If you’re invested in your project, it will come through in your writing and it will speak to higher truths.
What do you write?
How do you feel about writing tips like write what you know? Do you try to write what you know? How far outside of what you know do you take your writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.