Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Advice That Makes Me Twitch

(This post was spurned on by a video I saw on Kristan's blog. I highly recommend watching it, even though it's a little long.)

Write what you know.

It's probably the first piece of advice the average person hears about writing. In movies, there's always some writer who is struggling with writer's block or writing genre fiction. A wise, older writer or teacher or dude on the street will come up to that writer and be all, "Write what you know. Just write what you know."

Then the writer will nod, knowingly, and run off to write their best-selling novel based on real events from their life. *Cough* See Little Women or Anne of Green Gables *Cough*

I'm gonna be honest with you here—I pretty much loathe "Write what you know." Like, just typing it makes me twitch. The reasons are many. I think a list is in order.

1. Hi, it's FICTION.
If writers really just wrote what they knew (taking the literal meaning of this phrase, which many an average non-writer does), then that would mean writers only write autobiographies, memoir, and non-fiction. Where does that put the rest of genre fiction?

Are we really going to argue that C.S. Lewis actually had a hidden portal to Narnia? Or perhaps that J.K. Rowling knows exactly what it's like to be a teenage boy wizard? Or that Charles Dickens was secretly an old miser who got visited by the ghosts of Christmas? Or that Stephanie Meyer actually knows what it's like to fall in love with a vampire?

Of course they didn't. Of course they made it up. That would be why it's called fiction. Despite how real it feels, writers make their stories up. We could even say this of many realistic writers. Jane Austen—did she know exactly what it was like to be a wealthy, oblivious heiress with horrible matchmaking skills? And yet she wrote a very convincing Emma.

Writers don't write what they know in the literal sense, at least not all the time. And I actually think this little piece of advice is quite dangerous.

2. It Creates Assumptions Both in Readers AND Writers.
I am white. I am a woman. I am American. I am young(ish). I am Mormon. This means I am only allowed to write about girls who are white Mormon Americans, right? Or not. But I have felt that pressure. I have felt the expectation that for some reason I am not allowed to explore other people, places, and cultures within my writing. That when a reader sees my face, they will expect a certain story from me.

I hate that, and I think part of this expectation comes from this false idea that writers always write what they know.

Let's look at the book I hope to sell: It's about a Japanese-American boy ninja living in San Francisco.

I know I'll be judged for writing this book, and worse, my book will be judged for who I am. People will look for flaws intentionally, try to find where I messed up. And there's nothing I can do about it. Some will think "What right does she have to write that? How can she understand her character?" Others might think "That takes guts." Some might not be able to suspend their disbelief just based on my name on the cover (if it ever ends up there).

It's sad, but it's true. And as bad as it is for me, it's worse for others. Why is there an expectation, for example, that all multicultural writers should write about their lives (or their grandparents' immigration, or their countries of origin)? If we know someone is Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, do we expect them to stick to issues only in their own religions?

How much do we judge a work of fiction just based on the author? Is it right to do that? Just because an author is gay or Mormon or atheist, etc., does that mean they only write about that? And if they don't, are they somehow trying to indoctrinate us with subliminal messages in their books? Can I come up with more silly rhetorical questions to emphasize my point? (Yes, but I won't.)

I don't think my own creativity and storytelling should be boxed in like that—I don't think anyone's creativity should be limited to their own sphere. Fiction is a chance to reach outside ourselves, to learn, study, and imagine what it's like to be other people. If we only write what we know, I believe we're totally missing the point.

3. It's Almost Right, But Not Quite.
There has to be a better way to say what I think is at the heart of "Write what you know." Something more like:

Write what you feel. Or Feel what you write.

Or maybe Write what you want to know. Write what you want to learn?

Or perhaps Make sure the emotions in your work are authentic for your character and that you research the setting, history, and culture of your story so that it comes to life and is believable even though it's fiction.

Yeah, I like that last one.

Think about it—as diverse as this world is, as different as people are—every human experiences the same emotions. The triggers for emotion are different for every person, but we do feel them. We all know fear and love and hate and sadness. We can empathize. We can imagine. And from this writers make their stories feel real, even if they've never been a half demon with a succubus for a mom.

And when I don't know something? Hello, research. I love research. I love constantly learning about new things and places and people. Whether it's reading up on the different neighborhoods in San Francisco or studying Japanese mythology, there's always some hole to fill in my knowledge when writing. I don't care if you write contemporary or historical—research is part of a writer's life.


Writing, like any art, is a chance to get outside ourselves. Yes, art can also be created by making sense of your own experiences, but really it can be both. So don't feel like you have to lock yourself in your own little reading/writing box. You really don't have to write what you know.


  1. Wholeheartedly agree with this! If I wrote only what I knew, there would be a whole lot of butt-wiping (of my potty training kids, not my own. Although...) and laundry folding.

    Great advice Natalie!

  2. Yes! I've always considered the "write what you know" philosophy to mean "write what feels real". Unless you've spent every day of your life trying to avoid people, surely you know how to write convincing relationships?

    Great post!

  3. YES!! Thank you! I've never understood this phrase since we write fiction. The whole point is to create and explore things that don't exist.

    My first book had a male protagonist who was starting college and it was science fiction (complete with aliens and spaceships), but I was in junior high when I started writing it with another 13-14-year-old girl. We didn't know about aliens OR really understand boys but that's what our book was.

    If everyone stuck to that phrase, we would have no movies, well, no cool ones like PUSH or Pan's Labyrinth. We thrive on creativity, so why stunt it now by limiting yourself to what you know?

    Also, love your examples, but you left out Middle Earth haha. :)

    Thanks again, Natalie!

  4. Beth, ditto on the butt-wiping, but I don't fold laundry:)

    Tere, even the recluses find something to write about, hehe. Hi, Henry David Thoreau.

    Amanda, I only left out Middle Earth because I'm pretty sure Tolkien DID have a portal somewhere...at least I'm still hoping he did.

  5. Great post! And I would add to point 2 about making assumptions that if you do happen to write a main character that is a white American girl people will assume you are writing about yourself even though you are not your characters.

  6. I swear "write what you know" came from a non-writer along with the idea writers can sit around all day and magically the words float onto the page.

    I know Calculus does that mean I can write an amazing book about Math and it's evil battle against the English Essay? No, I'd be hanging myself before I willingly touched calc again. I like write what you want to learn better.

  7. Woot, woot! Thanks for saying it so well. I'm a stay at home mom, and I don't want to write what I know. Sheesh. Who'd want to read that? Not me. I live it. Give me immagination any day. :)

  8. Totally agree.

    I think "write what you know" should come with this caveat: you know a LOT more than you think you do. Because when you inhabit your characters, you know what it's like to be that character. When you do research, you begin to know a lot more. When you imagine things, you know what it is you're imagining.

  9. Liz, oh YES, excellent point. People DO think that often! Why do we get the auto-Mary Sue treatment? It seems like especially in YA people assume all these women are going for wish-fulfillment or something.

  10. "Fiction is a chance to reach outside ourselves, to learn, study, and imagine what it's like to be other people. If we only write what we know, I believe we're totally missing the point."


    I think you're spot-on. My honest guess it that a lot of these writing "rules" (or laws, as they are sometimes touted) came from well-meaning advice that experienced authors or teachers were trying to offer to young writers who were stuck.

    "I love writing but don't know what to write about..."
    "Write what you know!"

    And somehow that got warped into, write ONLY what you know.


    (I think "Show, don't tell" is another of those maxims that's been pushed past its original intent.)

    Anyway, here's what I think, Natalie: I think you're bold and imaginative and awesome for writing about what you love, and loving what you write. And anyone who doesn't see that can go suck an egg!

  11. I like "write what you want to know" or write what you're interested in learning. My MC is about as far from myself as possible, but it's been really interesting to put myself in the mind of a borderline alcoholic nymphomaniac with severe family issues. I certainly don't know a thing about that, but I know what it's like to feel emotion strongly, and when it's all boiled down, that's all that's happening.

    Great post!

  12. Good post. I agree with everything you've said, and will add:

    You can write about what you know (a memoir, let's say - see Angela's Ashes) if you've had a suspenseful/harrowing etc. life and if you can write it well. Humdrum, blah, "I changed my baby's diapers three times today," doesn't cut it. It's very difficult to write what you know; difficult to pick and choose and get it in a form that's as compelling as a good work of fiction. Both ways aren't easy. Writing something good isn't easy!

  13. I choose to believe that CS Lewis did have a portal to Narnia.

    The rest, though, I agree with.

  14. Wait. WAIT. You are not a sixteen-year-old Japanese-American ninja boy???

    Our entire relationship is founded on a lie. Everything I thought I knew about you...

    Next thing you're going to be telling me that you aren't invisible.

  15. I have always prefered: write what you like (as in like to read). Chances are, if all the books on your shelf are fantasy, historical and science fiction, you're more interested in imagining a world different than your own than chronicling the world you're in. If all your books are true crime or memoirs, perhaps you're more grounded in reality.

    Not only will books written in styles and genres you don't read sound fake (duh!), but you might not even like it. And that would stink.

    There are no limits, in my opinion, to the types of characters you can write. People who worry about writing within a race view or gender view seem to forget that, beneath it all, we're all people. And striving to understand (and step into the shoes) of someone "different" is not only good for the world and expanding for the writer and reader, it might also go to show how much we all have in common.

    And that's a good thing.

  16. I think your post really brings up our obsession with words. We get caught up in what one thinks "write what you know" means and forget about the underlying sentiment of the advice. Yes often,"write what you know" is interpreted as "write about yourself." But I don't think that's what the advice means. Personally, I've always seen "write what you know" as breathe authenticity into your work, understand, and speak from a place of authority. Sometimes this means you do research, sometimes this means draw from a nugget of personal experience, but nowhere does it say one must only write about their own life. I think what is ironic is that the way in which you've revised the advice harkens back to what "write what you know" originally is trying to say (in my opinion). There is an interesting saying that goes to the effect of: "The hand that points to the moon, is not the moon." The idea here being that the words "write what you know" are the hand, and that we've become obsessed with the phrase and forgotten what it is pointing to. In my opinion, the advice has always pointed to more than write about yourself.

  17. Well said!

    Write what you see... in your mind's eye. So what if it doesn't exist. It will the moment you put the words down.

    Words are magic that way.

  18. I love this post. It's so important for writers, especially in the beginning, to toss what you know aside and write what your heart desires. :0)

  19. "Write what you feel."

    If we must have a buzz-phrase, I like this one so much better. It's one I've used many times before.

    As you pointed out, so much of the truth in fiction comes from emotions and research. In the case of the former, we can dig deep into what we know ourselves and empathize, extrapolate. In the case of the latter, there are very few limits. We can learn about almost anything.

    So we combine our passions, emotions and what we can learn to create worlds and people that are entirely new, but, if we do it right, still resonate. That's way more fun than sticking to "what you know" in its most literal sense, for both the writer and the reader.


  20. I think "Write what you know" is meant for beginners who just need to write *something* and are getting hung up on not having a "good enough" subject. I mean, there's that million-words-before-you're-any-good thing to think about. You're never going to get to a million if you don't start sometime.

    That said, I really like this post, especially the last part. It reminds me that I want to write about dragons :)

  21. Whoops, I pretty much parroted Kristan there. Guess I should read the comments first!

  22. Man, I go to buy shin guards for Dino Boy and look at all these awesome comments I can't catch up on!

    So to all of you—you rock. Love the thoughts. I totally agree that the saying isn't meant to be literal. I just think that too many people take is literal these days, especially those who aren't in the writing community.

  23. Super thumbs up. "Write what you know" is a fabulous place to start (why, hello Marie's first novel about a girl who loves to write named Marie) but it certainly doesn't have to end there. Heaven friggin' forbid, dude.

  24. I hate that phrase too! If we followed that phrase science fiction and fantasy wouldn't exist, and the world would be so much more boring without those genres.

  25. Exactly! It's very reassuring to see I'm not the only one who has issues with the "write what you know advice."

    I don't know anything about mystery novels, but I'm writing one. I also am a female with no noticeable genetic mutation and no personal interest in erotic moments. Yet, I write novels with mutants, gay male main characters, and some erotica. I write what stories come to me. And I enjoy discovering genres and characters through writing.

  26. How about "Write what is real to you" or "Write what matters to you"?

  27. THANK YOU!! :)

    I write completely opposite of what I know. I sure don't want to limit my fiction to being about a middle-class Ohio woman all the time. Boring.

    I find that I write about the complete opposite of myself a lot. Nearly all of my books are historical in nature and most of them take place in completely foreign cultures (my shiny new idea takes place in ancient India). Yeah, it makes it harder to get it right and I do feel the pressure sometimes to not completely screw it up, but it's what I'm passionate about so that's what I'll write :)

    Write what you know...ha.

  28. What are you talking about? I TOTALLY got a future-telling stone in the mail from my long-dead mother and then joined a crew of unscrupulous air pirates to find her.

    Why do you think it took me so long to write the novel?

  29. I agree, I don't know much about guns, but a narrative gets a whole lot more exciting when some madman whips one of those out rather than the mum pulling out a quilt, needle and thread during the climactic scenes!

  30. I definitely concur. I've seen people try to write what they know in a literal sense, and the work just ends up being a melange of people they've met and places they've been. The problem ended up being that strangers wouldn't get it the same way.

    Feelings are universal. A stranger can understand falling in love or feeling sad without ever having to meet the writer. Write what you feel is an excellent way of putting it.

  31. Awesome post Natalie, I love your versions of advice at the end. I can't wait to read your book and I personally think it's amazing that you wrote a book about a teenage boy ninja living in SF. And now you have an excuse to go there for "research" right? ;)

  32. Thanks Natalie; I've been grappling with this very issue writing a YA novel and being, like, not a young adult myself.

  33. Awesome post! If I only wrote what I know, the stories would be quite boring. I enjoy the research too!

  34. I haven't read your blog for a while (summer!), but I wanted to let you know what an awesome post this is. I can't tell you the times people are shocked I write in ENGLISH when they find out my birth tongue is SPANISH.

  35. The phrase never bothered me.

    I always took it to mean something similar to your point 3. No matter if you're a suburbanite, a boy wizard or spy on the run, you know pain, you know love, you know the desire for revenge (even if it's only to get your brother stealing your crayon)...so use that.

    Know vs feel..isn't it just semantics?