Thursday, February 3, 2011

Write What You Know... ... ... Ish.


I've actually had this topic bouncing around in my head for a long time, but now it's racing, thanks to Michelle Davidson Argyle's exposure of lies told to writers.  Every writer has heard this, and most non-writers have heard this:

"Write what you know."

Most of us writers have, at one time, believed this and taken it to heart.

Most of us writers have, at another time, rebelled fiercely against it.

I've come to believe that there is a very important truth in this statement, but that it's been lost due to abuse, misuse, over-preaching, and misunderstanding.  In her post, Michelle distills the value of this sentiment down to, "Write confidently."  I think that's part of it, but I would respectfully take it in a slightly different direction: "Write authentically."

It's odd to me that so many writers take this admonishment literally.  Some do this in their acceptance of the  maxim, to the great detriment of their writing.  Some do it in their refutation of the position, making a bit of a straw man.  I'll confess to now knowing the origin story of, "Write what you know," but I don't think it was meant to preclude imagination or writing about the exotic.

(As a brief aside, "Write what you know," is also the briefest form of the aphorism.  I have also been taught variations on it that inherently make more sense:  (1) "When you're stumped as a writer, you should always go back to the basics and write what you know."  (2) "When you're a new writer, trying to become comfortable with mechanics, style, and voice, you should start by writing what you know.")

Here are some things I think were not intended by the speculative first to teach, "Write what you know," that too many writers and even some writing teachers I've met, think are included:

  • Write only locations you have been.
  • Write only characters who are essentially like you.
  • Write only plot-lines that mirror real experiences you have had.
  • Write only from your own world view.
  • Avoid writing fantasy, historical fiction, or anything speculative that is not grounded in hard science.
The list goes on, and only gets more absurd and more destructive to creativity as it goes.  Please don't go down that road.  It's not what I mean, and I'm fairly certain it's not what this idea is supposed to mean either.

"Write what you have experienced know firsthand know is real know."

So what do I think, "Write what you know" means?

I think confidence is part of it, but I think it's also about authenticity.  Confidence is critical, but confidence can also be misplaced.  I've read a lot of confidently written material that rings utterly false and the writing is weaker because of it.

I don't believe in any real rules, of course.  I will always stop short of saying you must write with authenticity.  I do firmly believe, however, that your strongest writing will always be authentic.  Authenticity implies that you can express what something is really like, not that you have necessarily experienced it yourself. 

Some ideas of what that might mean:
  • Know the emotions, even if not the specific stimuli in the story.  If you're writing a story about the loneliness of a life where your dreams are always out of reach, you should understand what that feels like.  That doesn't mean that you need to have been in that exact position.  It means you need to understand the human condition, the drives, the longing, the emotions that are all involved.  Maybe this requires research.  Maybe it requires intelligent extrapolation.  Maybe it is something you've experienced.  But for your writing to be at its strongest, you should know these feelings -- not just guess about them.
  • Research isn't always enough.  Research  is great for gathering facts.  Good research can even get you an idea of what others have experienced.    Research can also lead to false confidence, however, and you can write with an authority you don't really have.   I'm not talking about the nit-picky details, either.  I may cringe when I read passages about archaeologists, but I try my best not to be the guy that says, "We would never have used a quarter-inch screen in that kind of soil!"  Whoopty-whoop.  But when you make something integral to your story and the characters' experience, be aware of the potential limitations of research.  It's one thing to be sitting in Indiana and read research that indicates --20F degree temperatures are common in Alaskan winters.  It's another to actually understand what -20F degrees feels like and means for people.  Sometimes, it's just a matter of  making sure you have done the right research and found people who talk about how -20F without much wind really isn't that big a deal to people who live there, and that's it's probably inauthentic to have an Alaskan character mid-winter think of 0F as getting cold.   Sometimes, you can't find things out by research and you need to experience them for yourself.  The point, though, is to know these things, not simply to be aware of the basic facts. 
  • Know enough.  This is really a capstone to the first two ideas.  It's also almost tautological.  If you're writing about an archaeologist, you don't need to know what a datum is unless it's important that you do.  Likewise, if the temperature is only a minor environmental note, it doesn't matter  if you know how people experience it.  But if you're writing about people's experience, suddenly it becomes important.  It's very tempting to take a piece of fact and guess about the experience.  "Okay, I know a patient in this condition will be vomiting.  EMT's deal with vomiting a lot.  What will probably happen is that the people around will be grossed out and the EMT will chuckle, unmoved by the grossness."  In point of fact, a vast majority of EMT's never get used to vomit.  That might be important if you're writing about an EMT response to vomit, but would be irrelevant if you were just having an EMT come to the aid of a vomiting patient.  Know enough about what you're writing in order to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish.
And finally...
  • Know enough to understand when it doesn't matter.  Part of authenticity is understanding the variation that exists.  It's tempting sometimes to lock onto a fact and assume you must reflect it.  Not true.  But your writing will benefit from your knowing when it's best to reflect it and when it's not.  Go back the EMT example.  "Vast majority" does not equal "all."  Intentionally making a choice to have an EMT (for instance) be callous to vomit is quite different from simply not knowing in the first place.    It opens up opportunities.  "Seth chuckled quietly as both his partner and the sick girl's family withdrew with the stench of her sickness."
Those four points are just guidelines to help you understand what authenticity is about.  To cram it all into a simple take-away:

Writing what you know, or writing authentically, means knowing enough about what you're writing that even if you've never experienced it yourself before, your readers will feel as if they have, through your story.



  1. This is a great variation on "write what you know" I used to be one of those people who took it very literal, but the more writing I became involved in , the more I began to understand that its a basic idea, a starting place if you will. Thanks C.N.

  2. This is a particularly good followup to Michelle's post. Since the novel I have been working on for so long is written first person as a 32 year-old male shipwright (and I am definitely none of the above), writing with authenticity is an issue I have had to grapple with. You provide much reassuring fodder for contemplation--as always.

  3. Lie #1 on Michelle's post was the bit that I didn't completely agree with and I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head (regarding why).I agree- good research doesn't always lead to an authentic voice /story and authentic/organic writing requires a 'knowing' beyond just the basic facts/details. Sometimes, you just have to 'know' (or do a pretty good job of guessing/imagining based on what you know.:)). As you mention, people mistakenly assume that knowing refers to premise or specific characteristics of people or particular situations. And it doesn't really.

    Still, I think not knowing shouldn't stop one from writing (about what one does not know) but I think it will probably affect the quality of the reader's experience and/or the quality of the writing.

  4. @Summer - Glad you're coming to a place of comfort with this concept!

    @Bridget - I'm happy any time I can both give people something to think about and help people find a way to stress a little less about their writing. I wish you the best with that novel. Sounds challenging to write, and often that challenge pushes authors to excellence!

    @Lavanya - Yeah, I definitely understand the gut reaction against, "Write what you know." I've heard too many writing instructors (ugh)misuse the idea themselves it's no wonder that their students get frustrated and stumped with what to do with all that imagination business. But the abuse aside

    And you're dead on -- thanks for stressing this: it should never be a matter of ...or else don't write it, but should instead be thought of us a way to play to your own strengths as a writer.

  5. Great post.

    I love the way you explain things like this.

    I have never believed in writing what you know as much as in authenticity.

    Imagine how boring reading would have been if everyone only wrote abut things that they have experienced.


  6. @Misha - Thanks for your kind words! :) And, yeah, I don't think anyone really intended us all to write nothing but memoir...

  7. I agree. Totally.

    I think it means understanding of humans and life. A sociopath may not know how to write guilt...except how he's seen it expressed in media. A child may not understand lust. But once you've felt these raw emotions that most humans can feel, expand it, push it to its limits.

  8. A fine modification of a principle which is dangerous if taken too literally!

    One of the stupid mistakes I have committed is creating a protagonist who was too much like me: quiet, introvert, a reader who thought a lot before she acted. In other words, a very boring person to read about ;D

    And a mistake made by a crime writer who makes good plots: she is a young mother so she stuffs her novels with pregnancies, babies and adopted children. Talk about too much of a good thing - even though I am a mother myself, she exaspirates me sometimes.

  9. @Clarissa - Very well said! I love how you've put it.

    @Dorte - haha Yeah, I have so far avoided making characters that are too much like my boring self. There are certainly similarities, but hopefully not too many of the boring bits.

    And I know exactly what you mean about the other example, too. I try to avoid filling my stories with too many of my niche interests, but they definitely pop up.

  10. I like the way you put it--as authenticity.

  11. Oh, fine, write authentically. I wrote my post early in the morning and didn't pick the right word, apparently. :)

    Many people didn't agree with my "write confidently" statement, and this is part of why, I'm sure. I didn't delve deep enough into it as you have here because there were a lot of other points to explore. If you'd like, I'd love to put this post up on the Lit Lab with you as the guest this coming Thursday. You'd also be welcome to add any more to the post. Let me know if you're up for that.

    Thanks, Nevets! As Bridget said, this post is a great followup.

  12. @G'Eagle - Thanks!

    @Michelle - Eh, I knew both that it wasn't the point of your post to explore every one of those points in depth, and that you were using something close to hyperbole to battle hyperbole. Plus, I've gotten in fights with too many writers and writing teachers to not understand the way that people abuse this idea. That's why I tried not to sound like I was disagreeing with you. :)

    And, I would be honored! I'll do up a slight modification and e-mail it to you as HTML. Thanks!


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