Good/Bad Advice: Write what you know

Fun bit of advice for anyone doing uni – READ THE ASSIGNMENTS! Turns out these journals I’ve been doing – which were the assessment piece for every other subject in this course – is not for this one. Its my own fault for making assumptions, but if I don’t need to do the journals, I’ll be focusing my time on things that actually get me a pass mark.

In the meantime, this is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I want to do a few takes on common advice, so ideally this will be #1 of many. But it IS mostly opinion, and if you have another take on it I’d love to hear it. After all, diversity of opinion is what drives understanding much of the time. And that’s what this is meant to be about; understanding advice to that is helps, rather than restricts writers in practicing the craft. If it doesn’t help, feel free to disregard!

Today’s advice under analysis is a time-worn phrase – ‘Write What You Know’.

The origins:

This bit of advice is attributed to a few different writers, but generally its accepted that the first recorded use of the quote was from Mark Twain, who ironically has a history of writing well outside his own experience, even if the core of his writing always comes back to them somehow. Hemmingway and a few others seem to get an attribution every now and then, but generally, Twain gets the nod as the original (though I’d hazard to guess he got it from someone else beforehand too – it seems to have been around a while), specifically while discussing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The variations:

Plenty of variations on this exist, from ‘write what you want to know’, ‘write what you don’t know’, and my personal favourite (credited to Ursula K. Le Guin), ‘write what you know, but remember you may know dragons’. There is a great list of variations at LitHub that goes through various authors’ interpretations on this as well, but guaranteed if you ask ten more people, you’ll get ten or more different variations.

The good:

The advice is great for writers who are stuck trying to write someone else’s style. I’m certainly guilty of trying to write like my literary idols when I first started, even though they had a very different experience and process to me. It certainly can be done, but I’ll never write exactly like Pratchett, McCaffery, Le Guin, or Sanderson.

But that’s ok, because I don’t have to write like them. The ‘write what you know’ advice I received was essentially that I don’t have to write like someone else, when I can draw on an experience of my own and go from there. It was freeing to know that the perceived guardrails of writing like an established professional existed purely in my mind. Write with my voice, from a perspective that I know.

Essentially, the interpretation of ‘write what you know’  that I first stumbled across was ‘its okay to write your own style that starts from your experiences’. But starting from my experience doesn’t mean I have to stay there. Another aspect of this interpretation is that good writing impacts emotion – and emotions are common across various experiences.

As an example, a recent piece I had a minor level of success on was about undeserved, yet overwhelming guilt. It involved an astronaut dealing with a fire on a interstellar mission (in the interests of self promotion, found here). I have never been on a shuttle, and the only fires I’ve dealt with have been of far less significance. What I have done is tried to talk a friend out of suicide, only for him to kill himself a few weeks later. The knowledge I did all I could to help didn’t do much to discourage the guilt and grief of the period following that. Similarly, I’ve never been alone in space for eight months at a time. But I’ve been isolated from family and friends on the other side of the world for six months, and that (to put it mildly) sucks. I wasn’t writing from experience in space, or any knowledge of space travel in that story. What I knew was the emotion, and that’s what I was trying to convey. Its also the highest I’ve ever placed in a Furious Fiction comp, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I’ve heard similar stories from other successful authors as well, along the lines of , ‘I don’t know what it is to experience ‘x’, but I know what it is to experience ‘y’, and the two elicit a similar emotion’. I think its season 13 episode 15 of Writing Excuses in which Howard Taylor discussed a similar idea in a much better way than I can.

The bad:

The problem occurs when the advice is taken as a limitation on what can be written, rather than a starting point. When it is taken to mean authors are not allowed to write outside their direct and lived experience. When anything that might need any amount of research is excluded.

The reason this is a problem is because many writers, such as myself, write to learn. We write as therapy and we write from ignorance to explore possibilities and pathways we never thought possible. Taking the advice as ‘you must only write from your experience’ is seriously limiting, and stunts the growth of craft and skill.

For me personally, this really go in the way of my writing for a really simple reason – I don’t like writing about my literal experiences. I can’t write about some of it, and I’ve tried writing parallel experiences such as travel stories. They don’t work for me, and I don’t particularly enjoy writing them. If I wrote purely about my experiences, then I wouldn’t be exploring any ideas, I wouldn’t be enjoying what I write, and my writing journey would have ended there.

‘Write what you know’ is not good advice when it limits what is allowable. I hear this a lot from people, and have seen it cause anxiety where it shouldn’t along with

The ugly:

The most depressing use of this advice I’ve seen is when it used as a weapon. I won’t mention names or specifics, but I once came across an author who thanked another author for their advice on writing a specific demographic. The first author had a book deal on a manuscript that included the demographic and noted that the advice really helped get the details right.

The result? The second author harassed and abused the first. It got heated and very nearly went to a courtroom, despite the fact the book in question had never been read by the abuser.

The worst part? The author doing the abusing – they were coming from a place of experience. They have suffered from some terrible discrimination in the past and have suffered for people trying to write the experience of this demographic and getting it wrong. Yet here they were trying to silence a voice that could potentially be an ally, and arguably had been an ally for some years. This take on ‘write what you know’ actually diminished the support for the second author’s demographic. The first author arguably had the right experiences and knowledge to support as well, and had been widely accepted as such in the past.

Thankfully, this was years ago and I haven’t seen it flare up since. But still, to see advice meant to allow expansion and uniqueness used to bring another author down was very depressing. Thankfully, it rarely seems to be used this way. Most of the time I’ve seen it used this way, its resulted in the accuser discovering the subject of their abuse actually did have the lived experience (if you ever get to hear body horror author Claire Fitzpatrick speak, she tells a great story about getting an abusive review for going ‘outside her lane’ while writing about her own specific and unique experience).

There are certainly cases of writing outside experiences that are way off target, but I think most of these come from people who don’t start from a place of knowledge, or actively go for a subject with which they are not familiar, with little to no interaction with subject community. That’s different – its the exact opposite of write what you know. It writing what you don’t know and hope no-one calls you out. That is not a great strategy.

Conclusion:

Write what you know has deceptive origins. Its literally written by a guy who wrote a book which drew from his experience, yet expanded far beyond it as well. Likewise, many of his stories were quite different to his, at times seeming unrelated to, his own experiences. But the themes and emotions evoked always came back to something tied to his views and perspectives. If he truly stuck to writing what he knew, then this was taken in the vein of writing the feelings he knew that others would relate to as well.

There are many variations on this advice, some restrictive and occasionally its used as a way to shutdown other authors. If its restricting how you write, then its best ignored. Advice should hone and expand what you can do, not hold you back and restrict you. That said, if you can use it as a way to strengthen your writing and give you a way to connect to your readers, then its absolutely a good piece of advice to take. Which is why I like Ursula K Le Guin’s variant – only you know your story. It might be dragons, murder, or a romance, and the details might vary greatly from your won experience. But only you know your story, and if you you write that, drawing on your own emotions, perspective, and/or voice,  then you really don’t need to be told to write what you know. You’re already using the advice, and doing so to its maximum benefit.

 

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