Write What You Know--Or What You Want?

Write What You Know--Or What You Want?

by Beth Adele Long

©2001, Beth Adele Long

Every writer has heard the old saw "Write what you know."  Many writers, young and old, have rolled their eyes at hearing this.  And sf writers in particular are loathe to follow that advice; after all, if we only wrote what we knew, where would we get the Narnias and Neuromancers of the literary world? 

Of course, it's pretty difficult to write much about something you know nothing about.  Even if you're going to make up every detail of your desert world, you still need to have a concept of how desert ecosystems work, what it feels like to walk through dry heat, and so forth.  Generally we get around such problems by doing our research: going to the library, searching the Net, talking to people who know about the topic we're interested in. 

So my question is this: if you know how to do your research, and you want to write about things beyond your home town, can you just ignore that whole idea of "write what you know"? 

My reply is: no. 

When you start writing, you should write what you know for a while.  This doesn't mean every story has to be set in your home town, with a protagonist that looks just like you and faces all the same problems.  That's not fiction; that's thinly veiled autobiography.  But there's an easy trap to fall into: writing about things that are so far removed from your experience and your world that you're unable to make the story real and important to the reader. 

Have you ever read (or seen the movie) Anne of Green Gables?  Remember how Anne is always coming up with heroic, overwrought tales of love and loss?  She was furious with Gilbert for telling her to write about what she knew--the people and places of Avonlea and her own Prince Edward Island.  But when she finally took his advice, she was able to sell a collection of stories.  I know, I know, this is all fictional in the first place, but I think the lesson is valid.  Anne didn't solve her writing problems by writing boring descriptions of pokey old Avonlea; she solved her problem by writing about things that had real and deep meaning for her, things that she could describe in convincing detail and with real compassion.  My guess is that if she'd wanted to try her hand at fantastic fiction next, the lessons she learned by "writing what she knew" would have served her very well indeed. 

Writing what you know has an added benefit for beginning writers.  Using familiar details of the world you know can free you to concentrate more on other aspects of story-telling: the plot and stucture, the characters, the language itself.  Sometimes I feel writing is like learning to drive a car with a manual transmission.  I can work the clutch, I can shift gears, I can accelerate and brake and I can steer--but when I try to do all of it at once, I go lurching down the driveway fifty feet and then stall.  Grounding your story in familiar territory, with familiar issues, can be like taking away some of those demands so that you can focus on getting the car going in the right direction. 

Write the relationships you know.  Write the places you know.  Write the crises you know.  Test yourself: can you make the things that are important and real to you seem important and real to your readers?  Can you step away from yourself and your surroundings enough to see them with an outsider's eye--to see what makes your world interesting and meaningful?  Can you tell the stories that you see around you in such a way that people from your world can read your work and say "Yes!  That's exactly what it's like for me!"  If you're a musician, write about music.  If you live in a tropical climate, let the heat and humidity and rich plants infuse your work.  If you have a large family, write about the deep love and fierce resentment that can flow out of big families. 

And don't forget what you know better than anything or anyone else: yourself.  You know what matters to you.  You know how you react to different people, situations, crises.  In all your writing, no matter how strange or far-reaching, it will be the stories that are the most deeply personal that will be the most powerful.  Writing from your understanding of yourself is not a matter of preference or style.  It is a necessity. 

Learn these lessons, and carry them with you wherever you go.  Writing what you know is not about limiting your scope.  It's about finding the things that you understand; it's about sharing the things you have passion for; it's about making your work deeper, more personal, and more alive.