Hello Writers!

Write What You Know–

Some writers tell you, “Write what you know!” Others tell you that half the great literature of the world would be lost if people wrote only “what they knew.” So it’s important to figure out what write what you know can mean.

Taken most narrowly, it would mean write only about what you have actually experienced. That does seem a bit limiting. Many writers are fundamentally–sometimes embarrassingly autobiographical. That might work for them, but it doesn’t seem appropriate as a general rule for all fiction.

A broader application of write what you know recognizes that the idea of you is complex in itself. You, in theory at least, know yourself. But your self is made up of many selves–the girl who wanted an older brother, the high school misfit, the college student who dressed in black and wanted to join the French club, the woman who fantasizes about what she would do with her own television talk show. You are, in part, not only persons that you once were, but also persons you have tried to be, persons you have avoided being, and persons you fear you might be. All these are people you know.

A still broader notion of write what you know would recognize that you know in many ways. In fiction you can be your younger sister, your college roommate, your nervous boss, or your unhappy neighbor. Fiction based not on your own experience, but on experience you’ve observed is also writing about what you know. You know by empathy. You know by living.

So, what kind of advice is write what you know anyway?

First, it’s helpful to state the principle in reverse. “Don’t write what you don’t know.” If you know nothing about Zaire, the federal penitentiary system, schizophrenia, or the French Revolution, you’re unlikely to write about these things successfully. But then the situation gets more complicated.

We do have to acknowledge research as a legitimate way of knowing, or much fiction would be impossible. […]We have to recognize imagination as a form of knowledge or our speculative fiction would vanish. Writers invent people they’ve never met, events that never happened, and countries that never existed.

But if your fiction is to live, something deeply immediate and personal must be at its heart. [For example,] Mark Twain made up stories, but he knew his Mississippi River, its people and its dialects. […] Orwell invented a world of the future but it was based on his deep understanding of his own society.

Rather than giving us license to write about what we don’t know, Henry James wants us to understand that the notion of experience is complicated. “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it–this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience.” James astutely shifts the focus from the quantity of experience to the quality of experience by urging the writer, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

That phrase deserves particular reflection. It recognizes that for writers experience is ultimately internal. A person may have worked on the railroad for forty years, traveled to exotic countries, or had a galaxy of escapades, but if that person is not observant, perceptive, and thoughtful about those experiences, that will show itself in the writing. On the other hand, if you have paid close attention, ideas for fiction will occur within the smallest compass. Educating yourself to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost is the deepest experience of all.

Think of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, a Civil War classic written by a man who has not been on the battlefield. This novel has been justification for an infinite amount of “non-experienced” fiction. But Red Badge is not only a war story, its a classic of psychological realism, of insight into men under stress, of a young man’s fear, confusion, and self-delusion. Crane was writing about what he knew.

So, write what you know is good advice, but should not be interpreted narrowly. There’s a plenitude of possibility in what you know, what you can know, what you might want to know, and what it means to know.

Excerpt from Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern,  published by W. W. Norton & Company.