What “Write What You Know” Really Means

Write what you know. This little nugget of instruction seems to have been floating around the writing world since the writing world first took shape. You might hear it offered in a workshop, read it in an author interview, or find it in the pages of one of those “how-to” books. But these four seemingly simple words constitute what must be the most widely – and wildly – misunderstood bit of advice since a guy and gal were told not to eat the apples off a certain very special tree.

The problem is one of literality. Because when taken literally, the products of a pen sticking to write-what-you-know prose are going to read more like diary entries than novels. Take me, for instance. I don’t have to exclusively write stories dealing with individuals who spent their childhood moving across the country from college town to college town with a pair of professor parents, only to finally settle down in a small suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I can write about such characters. Because, yeah – I’ve got a heap of personal insight into what that sort of life might be like. But to restrict myself to such a narrative would be doing a huge disservice to myself and anyone who may read my work.

Let’s break the phrase down. And, because rules are meant to be broken, why don’t we begin at the end. That word – know. It’s clear enough what it means in a literal sense, but as soon as you step away from such concreteness, things get slippery. Is it ever possible to know what someone else is feeling? I’d argue yes. Certainly. It isn’t simple. It isn’t foolproof. It takes hard work, and lots of it, but I believe one can empathically enter into a situation or set of circumstances that they themselves have never literally lived through. These experiences leave you with little kernels of knowledge, emotional and psychological truths that you can take with you into imaginative circumstances.

Which is where the writing comes in. The word write, in this instance, does not merely refer to the mechanical act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. When it comes to writing what you know, the word instead embodies the entire writing process – beginning with that slow, painstaking practice of imagining yourself into a life you haven’t literally lived, of stepping into someone else’s shoes for a stroll, or lacing up a pair of their boots for a full-on trek. The process is sustained and informed by the imaginative, empathic journey you took (or continue taking) into that once-foreign body, life, or world, and the product of your labors is enriched by those kernels of emotional and psychological knowledge you’ve brought along for the ride. It works like the introduction of water to a dry and lifeless planet.

Do I realize that this is all a tad highfalutin, and that I might kinda sound like an ass?

Yes.

But that is because I take this seriously. Empathy is the superpower available to any and every human being. It can change the world, and regularly changes individual lives. I know that it’s changed, and continues to change, mine. At times, that empathy comes in the form of a conversation or embrace from my fiancée or a friend. Other times, it comes in the pages of a novel, one authored by a person who has put in the work it takes to know about a series of situations or set of circumstances they have not literally lived through. It is what I try to imbue my own writing with, and what I hope to offer to every reader of my work.

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