This week’s Tuesday post concerns the most confusing piece of advice a writer can get: “Write what you know.” The effect of this advice can range from brilliant to useless to damaging: it can be perfectly relevant or have nothing to do with your writing at all. Yet for some reason, people bring out this truism like it’s the end-all solution to writer’s block.
We’re going to make some sense out of it.
Warning: this was very clearly written by an English major.
What do you know, anyway?
When you “write what you know”, it means you’re drawing from your own experiences to create depth in your world. This is incredibly easy if you’re writing an autobiography, but not so much if you’re writing the next epic sci-fi series. It’s hard to say from personal experience how, exactly, to take down the Death Star.
Adding what you know to fiction takes a little more thought.
First, you need to understand that knowledge comes in different ways. There’s experience, of course, and there’s knowledge from imagination. But there’s also emotional knowledge, which is a key ingredient in everything from Shakespeare to Game of Thrones. And there’s academic knowledge, things you’ve consciously learned.
The most direct way to use your personal experiences in writing is to write an autobiography.
Note: ‘direct’ does not mean ‘easiest’. You only need to Google “fake memoirs” to find a list of people who failed to write from personal experience. Writing an autobiography requires attention to detail and history, and a talent for storytelling. My grandfather finished his own autobiography a few years ago: seeing the amount of research and dedication he put into telling his own life story was eye-opening and inspiring.
One step removed, experience can be found in extended metaphors and allegories. A good example is Ayn Rand’s We The Living, which describes the Russia that Rand herself fled in 1926. The story is fiction: the experiences and opinions are very clearly taken from the author’s life. The characters suffer her trauma, come to her conclusions, live in her world– but under different circumstances and the protection of fiction.
Writing under the guise of fiction can allow for honesty that nonfiction doesn’t allow. Under fiction, the author has deniability. It’s easy to tell your mother-in-law that no, of course that horrible overbearing antagonist with your initials, body type, and relationship to the main character isn’t you, it’s fiction! It’s just a silly story, no need to be offended!
Whereas the nonfiction writer has to own up to everything. Every detail. Even changed names are a small disguise for someone who knows your life well.
But Alex, you say, I didn’t grow up in Soviet Russia! I’m a writer with a day job as a paper salesman in Philly! This is useless!
Well, no, it’s not. Removed one step further, we can break down your experiences into elements. Everyone has moments that stick in their head: embarrassing ones, beautiful ones, heartbreaking ones. For example, when I was around fifteen years old I once answered the door while home alone. Standing on my suburban front porch were two men: one tall and bald with a hole in his throat, one short. One very short. They had a refrigerated van.
Briefly: a cancer survivor and his midget son tried to sell me steaks out of the back of a truck. And you damn well better believe that scene’s going in a book one day.
There is no one in the world who has not had odd experiences like this. Maybe it’s that time you ran into your childhood best friend from the Midwest while street shopping in Athens (happened to a girl in my school group in 2013), or that dog you owned that only drank water from the tap in the bathtub (her name was Clara, after the girl in the Nutcracker), or the husband of the neighbor to the right of your house running away with the wife on the left. Maybe it’s your crazy high-school boyfriend who started an Elvis-is-Jesus cult and faked his own death once. Maybe your uncle moved halfway across the planet to somewhere new and amazing.
This is all true stuff. Some of it happened to me, some of it happened to people I know, some of it happened to people who know someone I know. And these are all situations and instances I can use: all bits to flesh out a story that’s just waiting to happen.
And even that’s highly specific. We can remove ourselves further.
Think about the senses that catch in your mind in real life. The dusk sunlight glinting off rear-view mirrors as you drive toward a bridge on a road trip. Rain falling outside, framed by a bay window, as your father plays guitar on the couch. Dancing with a significant other at midnight in the snow. Everyone has these little moments, these full-sense photographs. We’re full of them.
Use these moments to flesh out your stories.
Write what you know.
I took a class in college about what makes it into the English Canon. We came up with a number of reasons why a work might make it into that undying number: historical relevance or groundbreaking material, or authors who were exceptional for reasons other than writing. The most universal of these characteristics: emotional relevance.
This is the reason we read Romeo and Juliet.
Let’s be honest: Romeo and Juliet gets a lot of flak for not being as romantic as people think it is. There’s a popular graphic on the internet, a Facebook post that reads:
Dear people who think Romeo & Juliet is a romantic love story,
It was a relationship that lasted three days between a 13 yr old and a 17 yr old, and resulted in 6 deaths.
Sincerely, everyone who actually read the story.
They’re right. Romeo is a moron and Juliet is a kid. The two families are prideful idiots who put the feud above their lives. Why the hell would you read a story about that? What makes that story so compelling that four hundred years later, we still consider it a masterpiece?
For the same reason we all love Game of Thrones.
I’m admittedly only halfway through the first book, as of this article. But the parallels are still pretty clear. Half the characters are kids who make stupid mistakes. Family pride gets in the way of every damn thing. The first major casualties are– spoiler warning– a puppy and a kid. What in the world makes anyone want to read that?
And I’m not talking about “everyone knows the heartbreak of losing someone they love” or “we all make tragic mistakes”. I’m talking about the scene where Jon Snow gives his little sister her sword, Needle, and they finish each other’s sentences. I’m talking about Romeo and Juliet’s pillow talk, where Juliet doesn’t want him to leave. Romeo calls the whole harsh world to come down upon them because “Juliet wills it so”, teasing and loving and far more heartbreaking than any of the deaths in that play. I’m talking about the little stuff. The everyday stuff.
The stuff we have all done.
That’s what I mean when I talk about emotional memory. Heroes (and villains) have a habit of suffering losses far more profound than anything us mortals can really imagine– Hrothgar loses scores of men to Grendel in Beowulf, Harry Potter lives his whole life as an emotionally abused orphan, etc. This is often used as a tool to humanize them, and it backfires. We end up numb to it.
So use those everyday moments. Use your own awkward feelings or ridiculous triumphs. It’s completely acceptable for your characters to over-celebrate opening a pickle jar or break down over losing a shirt button on a shitty day.
Write what you know.
XKCD’s What If series is probably one of the greatest thought experiments I’ve ever read. Randall Munroe, a NASA-scientist-turned-comic-artist, takes ridiculous questions and applies scientific rigor. The result is excellent: you get a bunch of wonderful, absurd scenarios with some very vivid descriptions.
This is a great writing tool. Where the first two sections applied to characters and plots, this is how you build worlds.
Writers do this pretty often. Many “realistic” sci-fi writers use a knowledge of science– Michael Crichton, for example, attended Harvard medical school, Tolkien was a linguist, Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry. In contrast, Neil Gaiman once told me himself that he never went to college. And Ray Bradbury didn’t go to Harvard, but he was a magician and illusionist.
Those writers did what Randall Munroe did: had an idea, asked a question, and applied their knowledge to it. Crichton: “Is it possible to bring dinosaurs back to life?” Bradbury: “What would happen if a man’s tattoos told the truth?” Asimov: “How would robotic servants change the world?” They’re silly questions, sure, and they don’t exactly describe the whole plots of a book. But Jurassic Park and The Illustrated Man and I, Robot are some of the best books I’ve ever read.
It doesn’t matter what you know, but everyone knows something. Maybe it’s music, or cooking, or even sports: but it’s applicable to your book. Not directly, maybe (“Alex, what does baseball have to do with my epic fantasy trilogy?”), but it can be. And that background knowledge is what gives your book depth, what makes it interesting.
Write what you know.
Putting it Together
That was long.
For those of you who skimmed it, here’s the TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read): you can draw more from your experiences than just what you see or what you’ve done. The most exciting person in the world has nothing to use if they don’t know how to use it. The most boring could write a novel, if they know how to learn from what they say.
There is no experience that you can’t make interesting and no novel that you can’t enhance with a little introspection.
So write what you know.