Write What You Know

I think one of the most common pieces of writing advice given out ad nauseam can end up being a troublesome struggle for writers. “Write what you know” is a very misleading suggestion. If you write at all, you’ve no doubt heard this either from a teacher, friend, or book and I’ve heard it too, from all those sources. And while I agree with it, on some levels, I think it’s a really easy answer to give and a more difficult one to integrate or process. In my opinion, if you are going to give this advice to someone, you need to explain what you really mean, rather than leaving them to flounder through figuring it out on their own. I’ve only just now come to understand what it means for me and I thought I’d share, in case it helps you too!

If I only wrote what I know, I’d write a story about a girl who was homeschooled all the way through high-school, went to college, met her husband, got married, had four kids, and wrote all the time along the way. It’s actually way more interesting than it sounds, so I’d throw in the international traveling, failed first engagement, and wacky friends to keep you interested. And maybe someday I will write a story like that. But what I like to write about is loss, and sadness, and depth, and conflict, and darkness, and struggle, and triumph. I like to experience one of my “snapshot” moments, and turn it into something real, imperfect, and human. So if I limit myself to writing what I know, I have no grid to process a snapshot moment and turn it into a story worth reading. I don’t have a frame of reference for so many of the things I see because I haven’t experienced them personally.

Does lacking the experience mean that I can’t write about it? Nope! I’ve found that “write what you know” means take the moment you are observing, relate it back to something you have experienced, and think about how you would feel in the situation. (Note: this is why readers/writers are more empathetic towards others. We do this all the time.) I’ve never been in a screaming match on the sidewalk with my significant other in the middle of the afternoon; but I know what it feels like to be that angry. It isn’t about the act itself being familiar, rather that the emotion behind the moment is honest. If you think about it long enough, hard enough, focused enough, you can tap into those moments of emotion from your past and connect them to the present and, in the process, you can write a convincing and moving scene or story.

This is how I “write what I know.” What does this writerly advice mean to you?

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