How many writers have heard a teacher or writer say these words:
“You need to write what you know.”
I want to spend this blog post on dissecting that phrase and helping writers understand that it’s not what they know but who they are connected with that matters more.
First of all, the phrase is a bit misleading. Have you ever asked yourself what you really know? I would argue that we never really know anything, we only piece together experiences and knowledge so that we can react to environmental stimuli. That stimuli could be reading a book or talking to a person or eating a lousy dinner at a crappy restaurant. Some stimuli are very simple but most are very complex, composed of emotional, sensory, and other data that our brain processes into an experience. The core knowledge we have (i.e., about the material in the book, about the paper itself and the typography and the process used to create the book) is obtained through various empirical means. This is a very complicated process and creative writing instructors tend to toss it around like it’s something you should have on a bumper sticker.
Second, as writers, we need to separate out the different components of our stories in order to make sense of this statement. I like to think there are three basic components to any story: the environment (where things happen), the characters (who are doing things in the environment and how are they motivated), and the events (what is actually happening). Putting these components into context within that phrase, “write what you know,” seems like an impossible task. How many writers can you think of that know everything about the environment, the characters, and the necessary actions needed to propel the story? Some writers like Grisham have teams of researchers that help him gather the knowledge required to create complicated, believable components that are very focused on specific industries or people. But it’s not the environment or the actions that pertain to the statement in question.
Part of reading is a suspension of disbelief. Our ability to connect on an imaginative level with writing is an inherent and very complicated process indigenous to humans. It is very much related to our ability to think abstractly, to put ourselves in someone’s shoes, to think of ourselves somewhere else. That’s what made books like Alice in Wonderland so groundbreaking. They were the physical manifestation of that ability to abstractly imagine (the character, who often imagined themselves somewhere else, actually went to the somewhere else).
Being able to write believable environments or actions, then, is a function of what’s being written. For example, if you are describing a character who can dodge bullets but he’s got no super powers or special skills, your readers will have much more difficulty connecting with your story because they won’t be able to get past those inherent issues. But I haven’t run into too many writers who fail miserably at this. Most writers understand the basics of research and will gather, even if at a minimum, some facts to help them fashion a credible environment and actions.
So let me rephrase the statement then as it should be said: “Write who you know.”
What the statement “write what you know” really refers to is the characters. And not what they are or what they look like or how they act. It’s the emotional make-up of the character (most often embodied through narration and dialogue). This is where stories break down. If a writer has not effectively captured speech, motivation, and emotional development, it will be far more difficult for a reader to connect with the story. Common remarks are “characters are two-dimensional” or “characters are flat.”
A great writing exercise to test your ability to write a believable character is to take a character, put them into a room, and have them do something that goes against who they are. For example, create a nun, put her into a room with a kitten, and give her a knife. This exercise will require you to deal with the character’s emotional response to the stimuli you have created. Doing so will give you a very good understanding of whether or not you can write about that character. For example, do you have the requisite experience or understanding of a nun to create a believable response to the stimuli? This is at the heart of that phrase. “Write who you know,” simply means fashioning characters based upon your own experiences. That allows you to create rich, believable characters with whom the reader can connect because you are connected to the character as well.
It is not impossible for a good writer to tackle any subject, any environment, and any event. What becomes difficult is in writing about characters with whom you cannot make a direct connection as a writer because you do not have any experiences/knowledge of your own about what motivates and drives that character. I’ll give you a personal example. In one of my Dime Novel series (Barty the Kid), I am writing about a young wizard in 1895 Boston. Of course, I need to do some research on characterization (although I rely a bit on suspension of disbelief as a function of the target audience). But what’s more important is that I need to infuse the character with my own experiences of being a young man, realizing that I wanted to make an impact in the world, and feeling that I was all alone at times. So from an experience standpoint, the character is very believable even if the environment and actions are out of my immediate realm of expertise.
The moral of the story? Simple. Don’t worry about what you are writing about, worry about who you are writing about and make sure that you aren’t tackling characters (i.e., you are a young white man writing about Hopi Indian women) that you can’t make believable with your own experiences.