To Write What You Know
I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately. Mistakes made by all, things done, injustices that have stacked up, and bright moments that kept me going. All of these things that have shaped who I am today. It also shapes my writing.
Which brings me to a subject that’s been bothering me for some time. The ever present, “write what you know”. I can’t tell you how much I HATE that phrase. I hate it with a passion, because it is so misleading and confusing to new writers I want to scream.
People are always telling others to write what they know but I don’t agree. I never have. Writing must, at least to many writers, be an adventure. We write to take the reader into our minds and show them what fascinating things are trapped inside our heads. I have never met Death, I don’t believe in things that go bump in the night, I will never see a space station. I am not writing what I know. Far from it. I’m writing what I want to find out.
Writing, at least when writing fiction, isn’t about writing what you know. It’s the question that drives the story. “What would happen if…?” If you have an angry hero sitting in a bar, what would happen if his ex walked in and started hitting on the hero’s best friend? I don’t know. What if they aren’t in a bar at all but trapped in a room they can’t get out of? What if…? Its the most beautiful question in the world. There is no question I love more than that one.
Now, I’m not saying, write what you know, is a bad thing at all. But it IS misleading and confusing. Where write what you know comes from is the characters themselves. Have you ever been angry or betrayed? Everyone knows what that feels like. This is what drives the characters. Anger, fear, love and hate, the things everyone has felt at one point in time. You can imagine a character and imagine how they would react using your own experience to feel with them and put that feeling into words. BUT if you know your characters the, write what you know, comes naturally. It flows from them because it’s in you, or pieces of you and people you’ve known. Its your past and present but that’s far from all there is.
Characters don’t live in a vacuum and a story must have plot. And that my friend, is where the most beautiful of all questions comes into play. What if. What if a serial killer fell in love? What if a man who hates heights was stuck at the top of the Sears Tower (yes, I know its not called the Sears Tower any more, you know what I mean), What if a dog could talk, a gerbil could make coffee, and humans were extinct? These aren’t just plot questions, they’re character questions, they’re questions that can fill your writing with new and interesting things.
So, in closing, we should use what we know. Use your past, use your memory of emotions, people, and things you know, but really, if you want to enjoy writing. Write what you want to find out and ask the most beautiful question in the world. What if.