You’ll see this advice given to struggling writers: write what you know. Is this good advice, or just well-intentioned bad advice?
‘Write What You Know’ Is The Stupidest Advice Ever Given
I’m sure someday I’ll think of some advice that’s stupider, but ‘write what you know’ is at the top of the list for now. Writers use their imaginations to come up with worlds, characters, and situations that have never existed and likely can never exist. If someone nowadays stuck with writing what they know, then we’d only have stories about people living comfortable, boring, middle-class lives where their biggest problem is dogs barking at the UPS guy.
Did J.K. Rowling do an autobiography about her time at Hogwarts? Did Dan Brown mine his meeting notes about his time with the Knights Templar? Did C.S. Lewis refer to his AAA triptych about Naria? Absolutely not, these writers made that stuff up. They didn’t know anything about those places, events, or characters. They created everything.
Same thing with you and your writing. You don’t have to have been a philanderer to write about adultery. You don’t have to have robbed a bank to create a gripping tale about your character doing so. Your job as a writer is to put yourself and your characters in unique situations, and to bring your readers along with your. Write what you know is bogus.
‘Write What You Know’ Can Help Your Writing Immensely
Aw… crap. Here he goes again with saying the opposite of what he said before. Make up your mind, Jack…
I just said ‘writing what you know’ is bogus. So how can it help your writing in any way? You not going to write what you know, you’re going to relate what you’ve lived. The two things are very different. Bring your own experience to your writing. Once you do that, the truth can’t help but shine through.
Say you’ve been a waiter. But your story isn’t about a restaurant or about waiters, or about the felonious cook staff who are always stoned and stealing frozen steaks. How do you write what you know there?
Take a step back. Make your experience general. Abstract. Being a waiter is serving in a low-pay, menial job, where you are pretty close to the bottom rung on the social ladder. The only person lower in the restaurant pecking order is the dish dog. Maybe in your story your main character is struggling, trying to pull herself up by her own bootstraps only to discover she’s not wearing any shoes at all. You can make her experience real – even if she’s in a dystopian future hellscape – by tapping into your own experience as a tipped employee/wage slave/menial laborer.
‘Write What You Know’ might better be said as ‘write your own truth.’
Write Who You Know
Do you want to know a secret? Okay… but you have to promise to keep it to yourself.
The secret to ‘writing what you know’ is actually Writing Who You Know.
Who should you know best? Yourself. Now, while that might not be the case for every writer, you really should be familiar with your preferences, foibles, and flaws, especially if you’re not a child any more. You put yourself in your characters, and if you do it right, you make them very real with almost no effort.
But even if there’s a spark of yourself in every character, not all of them can be you. To make your characters unique – and to tell them apart from one another – you should base them on someone you know. When your characters look at the world through a lens that is not your own, then you can’t pretend to be writing what you know. You’re making stuff up again, as a writer should.
Let’s say you have a character who is an overbearing Olympic coach. A real prick, but a guy whose athletes win championships and medals. Who is that guy? You could take your example from any number of real coaches you’ve seen on the news or seen profiled on the Olympics. But wouldn’t it be better if that coach was modeled after your college art teacher, who was an annoying prick who always thought he was right about everything even though he was wrong most of the time? You don’t know an Olympic coach (probably), but you know that art teacher. And you hated him. Except maybe now you understand him a little better.