OTF: Why the Whole “Write What You Know” Premise is Bunk

Write what you know. Or write what you don’t know. This is one of the big debates. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a paradox I think – you have to know it in order to write it. A little confusing, don’t you think?

Of course, the phrase refers to writing from experience. The “Write What You Know” camp says that in order for your writing to be “true”, you must take from your own life. The “Write What You Don’t Know” camp says that writing your own life is boring – why write about your own life when what you make up is 1,000x more interesting? (I tended to be the latter…)

Here’s what I discovered today: the paradox exists because the premise is entirely wrong. It’s not what you know that’s important, it’s what you feel.

For example, you can get the knowledge about the Eiffel Tower from reading about it, watching a movie, looking at photos. But you can’t feel what it’s like to be on the first level, gripping the cold iron girders as the wet wind of an autumn storm rolls through unless you’ve been there.

Or can you?

I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald – A Short Autobiography which despite the name is not an autobiography at all but a collection “personal” writings in the stead of a formalized tome (which he probably would have written if he didn’t die at age 44…)

One of the pieces is called “One Hundred False Starts”, in which he goes through his writer’s file of jotted-down ideas and scraps of dialogue. Interesting in itself, and a must (in my mind) for any writer out there – if for nothing else to see that one of the world’s best writers worked essentially the same way we do, and that he collects just as many bewildering scraps of ideas that go nowhere.

A line that struck me in particular:

“…I must start out with an emotion, one that’s close to me and that I understand.”

Entirely true. Further, how we react emotionally to a certain situation completely colours how we deal with the situation, and in some cases may be the sole driving force (for example, a “fight or flight” reaction). That’s important to remember when writing, I think (especially if you tend to be more of a thought-driven writer instead of an emotion-driven one like I am…)

Back to the Eiffel Tower – maybe you can’t feel what it’s like hugging those huge iron girders for dear life, but I’ll bet you’ve been in a similar situation. Maybe it’s gripping the rail on the Maid of the Mist at the foot of Niagara Falls. Maybe it’s a fire escape you had to scramble down one windy, rainy afternoon. Maybe it’s holding onto the big iron gate watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

So you take that information and plant it into your character. Even if you’ve never even been to Paris, but you can build a pretty convincing scene of that same autumn storm based on how you’ve felt standing on your own wrought-iron-lined deck in a wind storm. The key elements of course are the cold and the damp and the fear of being swept away, just cranked up a notch.

In other words, no, you don’t have to write what you know. But – if you want your writing to be successful and connect with the reader – you do have to write what you feel.

And as long as you can transfer that emotion from your real-world experiences to your fictional tales, you’re golden.

~Graham

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