why ‘write what you know’ can be very bad advice

 

 

Write what you know.

This has always been problematic advice for me. I started writing fiction when I was very young – I wrote my first novel when I was 14 and it almost, almost, got published several years later – and I could sense from my obsessive reading that writers were supposed to know a lot more than I did.

I was a sheltered, smalltown girl, and the only thing I thought I knew was that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I embarked on a quest to become Worldly and Experienced…at least partly so that I would have cool stuff to write about.

Except now I’m 37, and my life has been as interesting and surprising as my teenage self could have wanted, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I don’t know whatever it is I should know in order to write what I want.

Write what you want to know.

We forget that there are different ways of knowing. We know things in our head and our heart and our gut. And I mean literally: scientists have discovered brain in our gut (over a hundred million specialized nerve cells that allow it to act independently, learn, remember and influence perception and behavior) and our heart (over forty thousand neurons and an intricate network of neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells).

We know things through intellectual reasoning, but we also know through intuition and emotion. Knowledge comes packaged in nonverbal as well as verbal forms. There’s the knowledge of the mind, but also the body and the soul. Sometimes it’s the mind that we need to kick out of the way.

And often we don’t even know what we do know. The subconscious part of our brain takes in everything, records and remembers everything. It processes our lives in its own mysterious ways, to rise up through the dreams of creative work.

So when we’re compelled toward a particular subject matter, a certain kind of story, maybe it’s that shadowy underground knowledge that’s driving us. It’s not knowledge, necessarily, in the way we understand it. There are gaps and holes. We need to do research. But that want to know is a kind of knowing in itself: what we need to explore in our own writing in order to move toward wholeness.

Write what you don’t know…but will discover in the telling.

Steven Heighton said this, and it might be my favorite piece of writing advice ever.

Writing is a skill, and an art, and sometimes a dark art: you’re never quite sure where it comes from. You write to discover the story as much as tell it. When you step outside your comfort zone, push at the limits of what it is you think you know, you go down into the darkness of your underground self to mine the vein of gold that you find there. You write a murder mystery and discover that it’s really about your relationship with your father. You write a dark fantasy about magic and demons and discover that it’s really about your disintegrating marriage.

So I think, in the end, you need to write what you’re driven to write, whether you “know” it or not. Writing “what you know” is one step away from writing the book that you “should” write, which is a trick and a lie of the mind. You need to follow the whispers of your obsessions, and that ache in your gut you can’t verbalize because it goes beyond words, into a kind of inchoate longing. That’s where you’ll find the book that needs to get written, the sense and the feel of it.

Sometimes, to write what we know, we have to go into the unknown.

May 14, 2010
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22 comments · Add Yours

Excellent post and 100% true.

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That advice is what kept me from writing fiction for about twenty years. I figured I didn’t know enough about anything and that no one would want to read the stories I wanted to tell.

I’ve been writing full-time for about a year. Somewhere in that time I came to understand that I know enough about relationships and emotions, about psyche and self-awareness to write about it. That’s what stories are about after all. The trappings – details, setting, technology – can be researched.

I hope aspiring writers of any age read this post and become liberated enough to follow their instincts and write.

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Hear, hear. That particular bit of Sage Wisdom never made much sense to me, either.

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My answer to why “why ‘write what you know’ can be very bad advice” is that you can get too wrapped up in the writing what you know and forgetting the story. Any time I try to add a political slant to a character’s dialogue they take a huge deviation from plot and character related chatter and begin ranting against whatever latest group is misusing the term ‘fascism’ and ‘communism’ or something like that.
The bad part is I don’t realize that I’ve started ranting until I’ve typed up 15 minutes of the darn thing.

Or, if I try to give a scientific explanation to an event or action, without realizing it, I just go off on that stuff. I think to myself, well they need a bit more background information, so let’s give them that, and now that’s a solid base so we can go here, here and here, and ow! shiny! this little tidbit is so exciting I can’t see how anyone would want to pass this up.

Actually, the worst part is not that I rant without noticing until some time has passed but that I actually enjoy the ranting and I really wished the readers would like it to.

So, even if the story is trying to impart your knowledge to your reader, differentiate between storytelling, political treatises, and your doctoral thesis.

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Be that as it may, the fact is that when you are writing from the direct experience of your life and your sensibility, your writing is completely different than it is in your fiction — it’s relaxed, completely engaging, fully-realized, and impossible to put down. Quite wonderful. I miss seeing that writing here in the blog. I hope you’re able to bring that tone, manner and voice to The Decadents.

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I desire dragons, the thousand cultures of the asteroid belt, and impossible last stands – so ‘write what you know’ has never really been a credible proposition for me. But ‘know what you write’, though the correct form of this advice, has still been a monkey on my back far too often. There is always something else to inhibit me with my own ignorance, if I’ll let it.

“Write what you don’t know…but will discover in the telling.”

I like. That’s a very good summary of the balance between knowing what you write… and writing what you know in your bones, yet know not how nor why.

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Playing with the common phrases is necessary if one is to find the right nuance. I like ‘write what you want to know’ infinitely better than ‘write what you know’, for the simple fact that the word ‘want’ hints at a yearning to go beyond. You’ll learn what it is that you know by matching it up against what you discover.

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Love everything about this post.

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this is really helpful. i feel that phrase is so over-used and too general, so i like the way you flesh out our different ways of knowing…

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Your excellent post really hit home with me, particularly this: “You write a murder mystery and discover that it’s really about your relationship with your father. You write a dark fantasy about magic and demons and discover that it’s really about your disintegrating marriage.” So often what we “discover in the telling” is ourselves and all the little concerns and insecurities that have been clamoring for our attention without our even realizing it. Maybe this is why my dear late mom always insisted that she recognized certain parallels between my fiction and my real life even when I didn’t see them myself! :-)

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Very true, but a truth to be handled as warily as a blade – especially outside the conventions of literary fiction. For its obverse is even more important, and even more regularly forgotten.

You write a tale about goblins, and discover that it’s really about growing up being looked down on as a prole. But it’s even more really about taking goblins – qua goblins – quite seriously.

And all around that obstinate reality within the tale, the truths of our own lives come seeping slowly like tar.

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I agree with you, but I also want to point out that what I think you’ve noticed isn’t a change in style so much as an evolution of it. (That vampire story I think you might be thinking of was relatively recent, yes, but also a deliberate attempt at a first-person ‘voice’ for the character, and in any case it needed more time and revision than it got.) And I’m not sure it’s because — or just because — I write directly from my life and sensibility, but also because I’m writing *online*, which forced me to get to the quick of things, to streamline my choice of language and detail from the get-go. So blogging has been great that way.

In any case, my three published novels are the works of a younger & less experienced writer, so I’m hoping that The Decadents marks a break from that, sets up (what feels like) my second act as a career novelist. Who knows. Time will tell.

(Want to be an early reader? I’ll send you some chapters…)

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Love this post! When I was editor in chief at a publisher, I developed the axiom that the last person in the world who knows what a piece is about is the author. I believed it then, I believe it now.

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“(Want to be an early reader? I’ll send you some chapters…)”

To whom exactly does this phrase apply to?

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Ha. So true.

But that’s what first drafts are for. They’re kind of a dumping ground for everything in your head. It’s easy to go back and cut stuff out (especially once you know what the story is) — but writing three pages of excess material will sometimes offer up that unexpected paragraph of gold, the cool insight, the magic moment, whatever. It’s like an elite athlete who runs millions of laps day in, day out, in preparation for those two or four minutes of Olympic competition that decide everything.

What’s interesting though is how all those beliefs and values expressed through your treatises and theses, etc., start weaving themselves through your fiction in a way that enriches, not detracts from, the material.

To use my own example: is LORD OF BONES really about my disintegrating marriage? Well, no, it’s about a young woman with supernatural powers caught up in a war against demons. And — as Gray pointed out in another post — it is *seriously* about that. But would it be a different novel if I was writing out of a different framework of life experience, contemplation, rumination, all of that? Absolutely.

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Glad to know I’m not the only one who struggled with this. If I could go back to my much younger writer-self, I would slap her upside the head and say, Write the damn book already!

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This point about how writing online changes your approach is extremely insightful.

I am a veteran of many, many writing workshops (and have had many soul-crushing experiences in them). But some years ago I was part of of a Natalie Goldberg-type of workshop. You’re probably familiar with them: short, timed writing exercises around a “trigger” word or phrase, then you go around the circle and read what you wrote (or not) and people are NOT ALLOWED TO COMMENT. It’s a technique designed to dismantle the inner critical voice.

I was astonished at the effect this had on people. People who started the workshop unable to construct an engaging piece of writing were completely transformed by it — turned into writers I couldn’t wait to listen to.

It’s true, I’ve only read a couple of things of yours that you’ve posted online, but one difference between those pieces and the LiveJournal writing of yours that I love so much is the wry humor of your narrative voice in the blog. I was reminded of this again this morning as I happily laughed out loud reading your May 14 LJ post. This is such a natural voice for you, and with it you complete disarm me as a reader, which is to say that I completely and willingly enter the dream of the piece and stop fighting whatever you’re trying to do in it. If a vampire spoke in this voice, I’d be reading vampire stories.

This is of course a matter of taste, but not entirely. Your level of comfort as a writer determines my level of comfort as a reader. This is what “write what you know” is getting at. It was undoubtedly invented by a supremely frustrated writing teacher who was trying to get a student to not try so hard to sound like a writer, and to sound instead like “herself.” In this sense, “write what you know” is not about content, it’s about voice.

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5-6 years ago, I really felt that ‘I didn’t know enough to write about any damn thing.’ And I think that if I had decided to put my metaphorical pen away until I grew up a bit more, I’d still feel that way.

Now I only get like that every so often, and not recently enough to bother me.

So I’m lucky, in the sense that I didn’t ‘waste’ 20 years like Jonathan above.

Because if I had done that, well, I guess I’d avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made, but I’d just be making others.

In any case, I generally prefer to interpret ‘Write what you know’ as your ‘Write what you don’t know but will discover in the telling.’ Because you do know: it’s just hidden under something inside that mess of your mind.

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Great post! I’ve always felt that it’s more important to write what you love than to write what you know. If you’re writing what you love and want to write, that will come through in your words.

With my own writing, I usually start off with something I know, generally a protagonist who shares some personality traits with me, and then from there I go through situations I personally know nothing about. I’m a firm believer in the ability of the subconscious to help guide you along, if you relax enough to listen to it.

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Great post. I too have always been bothered by that bit of writerly advice, especially since I write fantasy, but I decided to let it stand for whatever experience I knew (physical, emotional, etc.) and not necessarily, knowledge–so I write to learn.

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I started writing fiction when I retired from working in public health. The first agent that read the book said you need to decide whether this is a novel or a memoir or a textbook, because at the moment it is a bit of each. Use your imagination more and your memoirs less. So much for writing what you know.
Yes it makes you feel secure, but actually the edge comes from feeling insecure, from pushing yourself out there into what you don’t know.

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I saw that in my writing workshop (thanks to a really great instructor). The writers really pushed themselves, got insecure and frustrated, and made amazing personal breakthroughs. That coincides with my understanding of ‘deliberate practice’ — you make a lot of progress very quickly that way. But it’s hard, and you have to bleed a bit.

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