‘Write What You Know’ Means to Write What We All Know

Creative Commons photo.

If there’s a piece of writing advise I remember hearing first, it’s, “Write what you know.” That’s not surprising since it’s the most ubiquitous writing advice there is besides perhaps, “Write,” and, “Read. “

The problem with this advice isn’t the advice itself; it’s how it gets interpreted. People are too literal, which is rather amusing to consider when you’re talking about creative, imaginative people like writers. Writers tend to interpret, “Write what you know,” to literally mean, “Write only what you know.” But, as is almost axiomatic as to not needing me to explain, that’s silly. Writers write beyond what they “know” all of the time. That’s the whole point of having an imagination. To crystallize the point, since I’m into darker, grittier and horrific stories, I’ve written about:

  • Brutal interpersonal violence, including injury, rape, and murder.
  • Kidnapping, stalking, menacing and other creepy, bad behavior.
  • Doing hard drugs, such as heroin, LSD, and meth.
  • Mental illnesses like bipolar, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and suicidal behavior, including the act itself.
  • Circumstances that haven’t happened to me, such as homelessness, divorce, loss of a close loved one, pregnancy, and related to the above, being inside a mental institution.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. In case you didn’t, and if it wasn’t obvious enough: I have never injured, raped, killed, kidnapped, stalked, menaced or creeped on someone, or done hard drugs, I do not have any of those mental illness conditions, and I’m still writing this, so I haven’t committed the act of suicide. I also haven’t been homeless, divorced, lost a close loved one, been pregnant, or inside of a mental institution.

I’ve written characters from the perspectives of women, black men, gay men, Muslims, Christians, Aboriginals, and immigrants. Again, I’m not a woman, black, Muslim, Christian, an Aboriginal or an immigrant.

I am a white, straight, middle class kid with a nuclear family upbringing in the United States of America. That’s about as textbook as one can get.

The point of, “Write what you know,” isn’t to box you in as an author. It isn’t to say that I should only be writing stories where the main character is a white, straight, middle class kid with a nuclear family upbringing in the United States. That perspective certainly means I may be limited in a real world understanding of the experience of a Muslim in India, but should I never include a Muslim character in a story? That seems wrong and misguided to me. The problem authors run into is not doing it well; that is, writing female characters and black characters and Muslim characters as stereotypes.

Stephen King gets that criticism with his black characters in his earlier books where everyone in the book talks a certain, similar way, but then the black character talks about “shuckin’ and jivin’.” It’s obvious what’s happening there, and such poor, stereotypical writing doesn’t age well.

A contrasting example of this is one of my favorite novels, 2007’s A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (you may know his debut book, 2003’s The Kite Runner), where the two main characters, Mariam and Laila, are women. Those characters are fully developed and realized without being stereotypical cliches.

Writing well is … writing well. Khaled Hosseini didn’t need to be a woman to write the Mariam and Laila characters. Likewise, (perhaps not the best name to use at the moment, but let’s go with it), J.K. Rowling didn’t need to be a man to write one of the most memorable male fictional characters in modern times: Harry Potter from the Harry Potter books.

What a bland fiction world it would be if white people only wrote white characters or if men only wrote male characters or women only wrote female characters.

“Write what you know,” doesn’t mean constricting yourself to your identity box or what you’ve literally done in your life; it really means, “Write what we all know.” That is, writing things we all experience regardless of those identities or (the redundant phrase people like to say) lived experiences: happiness, sadness, pain, loss, fear, surprise, anger, and so on. Those human experiences that bind us all together is what makes the best writing. It goes back to the writing advice I’ve given before based on what I like to read. Make me feel something.

The uniqueness, as a writer, comes in our way of presenting those shared experiences through storytelling.

The reason reading is one of the most alluring and beautiful activities is precisely because it’s a pathway, an escape pod, if you will, to finding out that other people feel the same way you feel about life. An analog that works well here is that of the comedian. We like comedians because they make us laugh, right, but the punchline is almost always based on those shared experiences that make us all human. That’s why it works. So don’t pull your punches in your writing or your “punchline” will suffer.

Reading is empathy development. So, too, then, writing is empathy development, just in the other direction.

… if it’s done well. If it’s done poorly, by all means, we should call attention to that in a constructive, informative manner.

Write. Write what you know. Write what we all know. Write it well.

What do you think about what I’m saying? There’s a lot to unpack here, and I’m not sure how controversial some of it may be among fellow writers, so let me know your thoughts!

3 thoughts

  1. Interesting post. I definitely adhere to the write what you know advice. I often write about broken people because I’ve been broken. I write about depression and gambling and loneliness and break-ups because I’ve experienced all those things. Maybe I do to take it too literally and should step out of my comfort zone and write from a female’s perspective or a story galaxies or something. I don’t really disagree with your post. I do think write what you know can help you when you’re stuck. If you have personal insight on a subject, why not write about it? Write to your strengths not your weaknesses. I enjoyed this post. Definitely a talking point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well-said. I may have been too subtle, as usually I include the Tweet I see that sets my mind going on these things, but I tied in the “write what you know” into the idea I saw on Twitter from someone who said, “White people need to stop writing Black and brown characters.” That irked me a bit.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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