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Outdated Advice Revisited

Every single writer out there has, at one time or another, been offered ye classic writing adage: Write what you know. I heard this at the ripe old age of 13 and thought how boring. At that age, I took a very literal interpretation of the advice (as many people do at all ages and varying stages of the writer’s lifespan). Quite frankly, I thought it was really stupid advice and never gave it a moment’s thought. I wanted to write paranormals at the time and obviously since they weren’t “real”, I didn’t “know” them. Didn’t stop me. I’ve never let lack of knowledge about a topic slow me down from writing. I’ll write whatever I can, do some research, get back to writing. The thing is–you can write about anything so long as you write believable characters.

Well, given that we talk every day, Pot and I inevitably got around to discussing this old chestnut on several occasions and she had a fascinating view of what Write What You Know really means. She’s finally written a post about it over on her blog.

Gone and read it yet? Good.

This was, I thought, by far the most sensible interpretation of Write What You Know that I have ever heard. Because the thing about it is that the thing we all have in common is human experience and human emotion. The thing that makes a book or story good or great as opposed to just okay, is that real connection between reader and the characters. It’s a concept I termed empathic resonance in my master’s thesis. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but I basically hypothesized that we needed an alternate definition of creativity that didn’t rely purely on novelty, because novelty doesn’t cut it. You can write a story about a pink rhinoceros jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and it would be novel. But it won’t be winning a Pulitzer. No, the thing that makes great literature (and good books) great, is the ability of the reader to connect–to have true empathy for the characters (well, there’s also the issue of the dead white guys that dominate the canon of English literature, but I won’t go there today). And my pilot research bore that out.

So when I, in my middle class, white bread existence, am writing about the rape of my heroine or how she feels describing the murder of her fiance’–do you think I’ve been there? Hell no. But I can pull from personal experiences of terror. The natural fear of every woman. And I can pull from feelings of grief from other occasions. And if I’m doing my job, I can make you believe that. I can elicit those same emotions in you as a reader, which you more than likely experienced in some other way than my heroine. And that’s what we both know. It’s our common thread of emotional experience rather than literal experience. So I’m a little more willing to admit that there might be something to this whole Write What You Know thing than I was when I was in 7th grade.

I wonder what other advice I’ve brushed off over the years because I didn’t think it applied to me?

One thought on “Outdated Advice Revisited

  1. Great advice – also I need to go back and comment on the suspension of disbelief post. I saw it before I went to bed last night and really enjoyed it.

    I also took this very literally the first time I was given the advice – but it has served me well. I think sometimes, the writer has to slow down and carefully consider how to render such emotions – but always it’s been worth the time.

    Again, great post! Thanks!

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