What It Really Means To Write What You Know

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It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. ~ Marcie Hershman

“Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood mantras.

And one of the most limiting rules to write by.

Here’s how writing what we know can limit us:

We write exactly what happened, play by play. Or we’re exhaustively descriptive, cluttering our scenes with objects simply because they were there in the room.

Unable to move beyond the literal truth, we confuse the facts of our experience for emotional impact. And when our readers tell us they don’t find a certain scene believable, we rush to the defense, “But it really happened that way!”

Except that just because something really happened doesn’t automatically make it believable or interesting. The facts of our experience alone rarely add up to the emotional intensity our readers long for.

As Bret Anthony Johnston once said, “The goal isn’t to represent an experience, but instead to create a piece of art that is itself an experience.”

The Myth of Writing What You Know

You would think that basing our work on autobiographical material would make writing easier. It stakes our narrative territory. The problem is, our territory is so vast we can’t wrap our arms around it. A true story can deluge us with too much material. It doesn’t leave anything out. And then we’re fighting against our urge to be true to the experience, making it hard to let go of characters and situations that don’t serve our story.

Yet we cannot help but write what we know. Even when we’re writing fiction out of whole cloth, it’s almost impossible to stop real life from seeping in. In order to create vitality on the page, we need to draw upon our own sensory and psychological impressions of the world.

Don’t get me wrong. We should write from our experiences. If you’ve spent time in a mental institution, let’s say, I want you to infuse your scenes with precise sensory details. I want to smell the cot your character lies on, feel the spine of the mattress pressing into her back. I want to smell the institutional soap in her hair. I want to live inside the experience.

But writing what we know isn’t  just a matter of swiping our siblings’ and neighbors’ idiosyncrasies and physical tics to create characters. Or summoning childhood memories. It’s not just describing the Yucatan beach smelling like butterscotch. Or the cowlick at the tip of  your neighbor’s eyebrow that made you distrust him.

It’s riskier than that.

What does it mean to write what you know?

Writing what you know isn’t about what happened. It’s not the facts of your experience.

It’s your emotional truth.

Screenwriter Peter Dunne in his book, Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot: A Guide for Screenwriters says

{What you know} is what-you-know-to-be-true-and-valuable-and-meaningful-and-important-and-worth-living for.

That means tapping into the things that deeply matter to you. Your pain, humiliation, frustrations, fears, obsessions and confusions. It’s your spin on the world and all that you are.

Your readers may not relate in any way to what happens to your character. But they will care and feel deeply invested in your story’s emotion.

Writing what you know sounds simple. But it’s deceptively complex.

It requires relentless interrogation into your own relationship to your material. It means excavating your deep seated beliefs about human nature and how the world operates. This takes time. It’s why revision is essential. And so much fun. We don’t really know what we know until we write it.

If we know too much at the outset, there’s no space for discovery. That’s part of the thrill  – those eureka moments when you realize 100 pages in that you’re really writing about your complicated relationship with your mother when, all along, you thought you were writing about your father who left when you were three.

Maybe you weren’t in touch with how much rage you felt over your brother’s death in a motorcycle crash. Until you wrote about something you’d forgotten, about how self destructive he was, how he courted death all his life and how his death felt like the worst kind of abandonment.

You think you know what happened to you? You don’t know a thing.

Because as much as we know, there’s a whole universe within us that doesn’t know. That can’t possibly know.

Richard Bauch recently wrote this:

Your knowledge of it is not rational knowledge; you are like an animal smelling blood. It’s THAT kind of knowledge most of the time, and it IS knowledge of a very specific kind, in some important ways more shrewd about life than all the other forms of knowing.

Truth and Imagination

If we don’t move beyond our experiences, we’re likely to create work that’s rigid, devoid of mystery, lacking in imagination.

Imagination is essential, whether we’re writing fiction or memoir. Because even our memories exist in our imagination. The past no longer exists.

We still need to re-imagine true events. We need to reconstruct conversations that happened twenty, thirty, maybe forty years ago. Writing from real life is not recording events and transcribing conversations. It’s re-envisioning and transforming our experiences. It’s digging beneath the surface to the emotional essence.

Write From What You Know Towards What You Don’t Know

Don’t get stuck on what you know. Go beyond it.

Take Hemingway. He wrote what he knew. He knew about war.

But he wrote beyond the perimeters of his life experiences. Jackson Benson who analyzed Hemingway’s work believes he used autobiographical details as framing devices about life in general—not only about his life. Benson believes Hemingway used his experiences and drew them out with “what if” scenarios: “what if I were wounded in such a way that I could not sleep at night? What if I were wounded and made crazy, what would happen if I were sent back to the front?

He used what he knew as a springboard, then asked, “What if?”

Hemingway once said this:

From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.

So explore in your writing what you know to be true, meaningful and valuable about the world. You won’t know how much you know until you sit down to write.


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