Write what you know. This is probably the first and worst piece of advice every aspiring writer gets. It was probably what Homer (if there was one) told Greek kids who wanted to grow up to be poets. On the surface it sounds like good advice. If you’re writing what you know, it’ll be more authentic, more nuanced, more boring? Probably.
No one seems to know who dropped the “write what you know” turd in the punch bowl first, but it’s most often attributed to either Twain, Faulkner or Hemingway. And for them, maybe that was good advice, but most of us aren’t riverboat captains turned gold prospectors turned authors.
I think P.J. O’Rourke rebutted this advice the best when he said, “The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed the Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”
Most people agree that if you want to write about spaceships you don’t need an aerospace engineering degree and a decade of experience working at NASA first. And I’m pretty Mary Shelly didn’t dig up, hack apart, and stitch back together half a dozen corpses before she wrote Frankenstein.
Although how cool would that be if it was true?
But still this advice about writing what you know persists. It’s one of those golden “rules” of writing. And few things get writers more incensed than a conversation about the “rules,” a collection of advice, grammatical principles, and outright nonsense. Some of it seems perpetuated by academia during English and writing classes, while some of it may be a response to the market, from writers trying to catch the eye of agents and publishing houses, but an inordinate amount seems to come from other authors writing about how to write.
On the one hand, they’re writers, some of them quite famous, so they’re speaking from a position of experience. On the other hand, it’s their experience, and their opinions. And you know what they say about opinions right?
They smell a bit.
Side note: This advice is also what gets us so many crappy Roman à clef books, a French literary phrase that translates as “novel with a key.” It sounds cool, but it’s basically a way for a writer to churn out an entire novel about a protagonist whose basically a wittier, take-charge, more attractive version of themselves. A character who does the things they wished they’d done with their lives, be it flying a fighter jet or telling off a bully. Side note over.
Most writing advice, is, not to put too fine a point on it, worthless. Because for every writing “rule” or bit of advice, there’s half a dozen best-sellers that break it with impunity.
Wait, you might be thinking, isn’t writing advice kind of what this blog is?
Yes. And let me be clear, the ways and means of how I write, may or may not help you write.
That should be the first piece of writing advice people give out. That there are no universal rules. What worked for someone else, may or may not work for you. What worked in the past, may or may not work for you. What once sold a million copies, may or may not sell twenty if it was published today.
But let’s get back to that first rule, write what you know.
This is what I think ‘write what you know’ means. Or rather what it should mean. It’s not technical advice, it’s emotional advice.
If I was writing about how my protagonist lost their mother to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, I wouldn’t write some fluff about my character’s grief and sadness. My protagonist wouldn’t be sitting on some exotic planet bemoaning, “Boo hoo, Mama’s gone and I’ll never dance again,” as they cried into their Mad Dog 20/20.
As someone who has lost a loved one earlier than I should have, I can say the two strongest feelings I had afterwards were anger and regret. Those are the feelings I’d put into that chapter. There’d still be Mad Dog 20/20, but it would be the half-drunk bottle thrown against a brick wall as my character raged against God, the world, and the recently deceased.
Yeah, I know that’s ugly but real life frequently is.
And then there’d be regret. Regret for words said, and not said, and time wasted.
Writing about the simple sadness of losing a loved one isn’t going to resonate with those who’ve gone through it. And that’s what I think ‘writing what you know’ really means. Instilling personal feelings into fictitious situations as a way to make them real to the reader.
So remember, there are no rules. Art is subjective. And the rules about what makes great art are subjective. Hell, the rules about what makes profitable art are subjective. The only way to find out what your art is, is to make it and cast it adrift on the sea of public indifference. And who knows, maybe in ten years it will get washed ashore in make-it-rain-dollar-bills land.
But unless you make it, you’ll never know.
Because that’s the worst thing about writing “rules.” They can keep aspiring writers from writing.
That’s a big enough reason right there to ignore them.