Home > Posts > Thoughts on the Phrase: "Write What You Know"
By Mike Grindle | March 2nd, 2023
If you have ever taken a course in creative writing or spent time learning about the craft, you will likely have at some point heard the phrase “write what you know.” It is almost as cliche and often repeated at this point as “show don’t tell.” But that does not mean it is not worth heeding either. Each person’s life, no matter how seemingly mundane, is a rich tapestry. We all have our own internal world unique to us, and many authors, including P.D. James, felt such was worth exploring:
“You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”
However, for many new writers, the advice “write what you know,” can be a confusing and almost paralyzing statement, assumed to mean that all writing must equate to some thinly-veiled autobiography. That is brilliant if you have lived the life of Ernest Hemingway or fancy some Thompson-styled gonzo journalism adventures. But not so much if you are, like many who take to the pen for a living, more of an introvert.
There also seems to be an increasing fear of stepping too far outside of one’s own experiences. As Zadie Smith writes, "The old adage “write what you know” has morphed into something like a threat: ‘stay in your lane’”. But as she argues, sticking too closely to personal experience when writing not only limits what projects are available to you but reduces the imaginative energy involved. Any writer needs discovery and revelation to push themselves forward. Without it, writing becomes a chore. The results are books that are boring to write and uninteresting to read.
“You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” - Grace Paley
What can be said for certain, is that a lack of hands-on experience has done little to prevent some of history’s greatest authors from telling their stories. Much fascination surrounds Emily Brontë’s seclusive nature, yet relationships are at the core of Wuthering Heights. Patrick O’Brian made a living writing naval novels, yet witnesses noted that “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil.” Likewise, I am quite sure Ursula K Le Guin never went into space, saw a dragon or lived on a magical island. Yet despite this, she too was a proponent of writing what you know:
“As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”
I do not think Le Guin is proposing that we simply “imagine up” the blanks in our knowledge. Nor that we should rely solely on science journals and history books. Rather, coming to “know” what we write is an an-evolving process. It involves the dissection of every piece of knowledge, feeling, book, conversation and song the writer comes across. Indeed, according to film-maker Jim Jarmusch, authentic creation is simply a matter of becoming a good thief:
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work, and theft, will be authentic.”
To be clear, Jarmusch is not advocating for plagiarism here. Rather, he is suggesting that when we fill our lives, particularly our internal lives, with that which speaks to us, “knowing” becomes a simple matter. You do not need to go to space to imagine a spaceship, but you should probably read some Sci-Fi. Elves and Orcs are not real, but anyone who has read or watched Lord of The Rings knows what they look like. Likewise, most of us will hopefully never experience front-line warfare, but we know what a battlefield is and understand what bravery and fear feel like.
So, in a sense, every writer can know or come to know any story they wish to tell. But the free reign to write whatever you want comes with a responsibility. In the end, the writer can not get by on fakery. They do have to “know”. Whether it is where that dragon came from and the fear it strikes into the knight, what it was like in that trench as the bullets rained down, or what it feels to be persecuted.
The magic of stories is that they can place us into different perspectives. There is, I believe, no greater method for teaching empathy and understanding. But that does not mean being a writer grants you access to appropriate whatever you wish, just because you thought it was exotic or exciting. It is not that we should confine ourselves to singular perspectives, but we also should not play guides where we are tourists, not until we've become intimate with the surroundings. Again, you really do have to "know" I think, even if it seems unknowable. To do anything else is to commit to lying to the reader.