Writers often hear the advice ‘Write What You Know’ – sometimes attributed to Mark Twain. But this certainly is a loaded idea and issue.
Most people misinterpret the adage to mean ‘write only about what we have directly experienced,’ but that can be extremely limiting.
What does it really mean to Write What We Know?
What do we know, anyway?
What we’ve lived through. Yes, our direct experience is a treasure trove. Though we usually need some time to get distance and perspective to properly portray what we experienced and learned.
What our friends/loved ones have lived through. Watching what happens in our inner circle gives us both an intimate view and a modicum of distance that can help us look objectively at what’s going on and recreate it.
What we’ve researched. Maybe we didn’t live through 12th-century feudal Japan, but if we research it thoroughly, and perhaps discover an aspect of it that somehow relates to our own family or cultural challenges, we can write about it with a strong sense of connection, through the lens of both our research and our experience. (See my prior blog post, Making a Story Our Own: http://wp.me/p3Byp2-5a.)
What we imagine. We’re a combination of our influences, books we read, experiences we’ve had, classes we’ve taken, families we’re part of, failures and victories. So what our imagination comes up with is an amalgam of what’s on our mind, heart and subconscious – and whatever creativity inspires between the gaps. As a result, the imagination is very much an informed part of who we are, and perhaps it’s the best way to come up with unusual hooks or solutions in stories we write — those things we can’t always come up with when we intentionally ‘try.’
One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Hemingway:
“The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
I also think that this is perhaps what Twain meant when he said, “Write What You Know.” I think it’s more about authenticity than accuracy. He likely meant, as Hemingway said, that we need to fully ‘know’ ourselves by wholly embracing and experiencing every moment of our lives, and then — no matter what we write about — we have to get it down on paper as honestly as we can.
May the highs be truly high, the lows be truly low, and everything in between. Hold nothing back.
More on writing from Hemingway here:
This post first appeared on this site on 8/11/14.