How Your Teachers Expect You to Write What You Know, & How You Actually Write What You Know

Posted: November 30, 2014 in Living and Life, Reflections, Writing
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There are various phrases and maxims that authors just dread hearing. “Nobody wants to read that sort of thing.” “Where do you get your ideas?” “Adverbs are your enemy.” That sort of thing. Here’s one that’s been espoused by creative writing teachers, how-to books, and maybe even your parents since writers have tried to teach would-be writers how to write:

“Write what you know.”

By this, they typically mean draw on your personal experience in life to write your stories. Anything you learned from steady research or anything you made up in your head, please leave at the door before opening up your notebook/turning on your computer/sitting down in front of the typewriter. Please keep this in the realm of experience and what is possible rather than what you imagine. If it’s not based on your actual knowledge and life, then you should stay away from it.

Most writers hear that and want to barf. A few do.

There are variety of reasons why no one wants to subscribe to this rule. Some see their lives as too boring or unworthy for writing about. Others feel that their own lives are too small and they don’t want to restrict themselves to just their own subjective experiences. And many (myself included) are attracted to things that can’t be personally experienced (usually, anyway), so they find that rule way too restricting to actually be usable.

I remember back in elementary school or junior high, my dad, my sisters and I were driving home from somewhere or other, and somehow the topic of discussion got onto the sort of stories I write. My dad suggested that I try, instead of vampires and cavemen and Frankenstein monsters and pirates I try writing a story about my own personal life. My reply was something along the lines of, “So you’re saying I should write a story about a Jewish kid who has rabbis for parents and has three annoying sisters?”

My dad’s reply was, “Um, yeah. Maybe.”

I think in that car ride I swore that I would never write based on what I know if it meant writing that sort of story. Let’s face it, it’s just not in my DNA. I can’t write those coming-of-age stories about a kid learning to be an adult in a community of religious Jews or about a man working his way up the corporate ladder at the expense of his humanity and marriage. Not unless those stories involve ghosts, demons, monsters, or serial killers. Otherwise it’s just boring for me, and no writer wants to write a boring story, one they personally can’t get into.

I also swore that I wouldn’t take writing advice from my dad again, though I broke that promise when he ended up giving me pretty good advice, such as “don’t be afraid to open yourself to new experiences” and “maybe you should look into writing and publishing short stories.” Now there’s some good advice for writers!

Seriously doubt these books were written with the rule “write what you know.”

I also did end up writing about stuff I know, but not in the way a high-and-mighty literary writing instructor might think. Probably not in the way my dad thought either. I certainly don’t write stories about college seniors living with a roommate and trying to get the grades and make ends meet. But I do include what I know in other ways.

For example, in a recent story that I wrote, the protagonist and narrator, in addition to having to deal with being a werewolf, also has to deal with the fact that she has feelings for her best friend, who is a girl. When I was coming to the realization of my own sexuality, I felt the same sort of fear and anxiety my narrator feels in the story, and I had a number of the same questions, such as “Would people accept me as I am?” “Am I really this way?” “How many things could go wrong if I came out of the closet?” Just because it was an element of a werewolf story did not make it any less meaningful or not based on my life.

Another example is one based on something my dad told me once (this is becoming a dad-centric post, isn’t it? Abba, I hope you appreciate all these mentions). He once told me that a great-aunt of his was well known for having dreams where she encountered the dearly departed. This inspired a novel involving a large family of Jews of many generations and their own dealings with the supernatural. I base this work on that story my dad told me as well as my own experiences with the supernatural (and I’ve had some freaky ones, to be sure).

Yes, I have experience with this.

In short, for me writing what I know is taking things I know about or have experience with and making them part of a larger story, often with fantastic or terrifying elements. It’s what works for me, and it’s what I love doing.

Of course, this is my version of how this works. For others, it may be different. There may be writers who write entirely based on what they know and what they’ve experienced, and there may be others who write absolutely nothing based on their real lives (I have a feeling that many fantasy writers are like this). It’s a bit of a spectrum, if you think about it in a certain way.

But like I said, every author is different, and no rule works for every author. “Writing what you know” is a prime example of that. It works for some people, and it doesn’t work for many. It all depends on the author, what they like working on, and how much they want to put their own lives in their stories, among other things. I’m the kind of guy who will take elements of my life or my own knowledge and put it into the stories as part of a larger whole rather than as the entire basis for a story. And that’s just how I work. For others, it’s quite different, but I think that’s good. Because no two writers are the same, and that means that no writer is going to produce the same kind of story.

To me, that’s really exciting.

Do you use any elements from your own life in your stories?

How do you do it?

  1. Michael Ungar says:

    I will defer to the expert.

  2. bfostrickson says:

    I guess we’re of the same mind today, eh?!

    Once, when I was young and all I wanted to do was read books about animals, someone suggested I read different things, like non-fiction. I didn’t. I just kept on reading what I wanted to. Why? Because each to his own.

    If I’d taken that advice, I feel like I wouldn’t have grown my interests by myself. Which is important. Write what you want, when you want. That’s my rule. 🙂

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