On ‘Writing What You Know’

Ever since I started getting serious about writing as a craft, I have been unable to decide if this ubiquitous aphorism is my least favorite piece of writing advice or a misunderstood gem.

On a shallow level, this piece of advice often gets interpreted to mean ‘write thinly veiled autobiography’. Hence a lot of vague slice-of-life stories about angsty twenty-somthings from a certain demographic (as parodied here), or midlife-crisis manpain. Like any trope, these stories can be done in a fresh and compelling way. However, that’s not going to happen if you’re writing it because you’ve been told to write a certain narrow type of psudo-autobiographical fiction (the imposition of other stereotypical narratives on people who don’t fit the ‘upper middle class heterosexual WASP’ mould is a topic unto itself; that this claustrophobic definition of ‘what you know’ sidelines most genre fiction is another).

This advice is brilliant, however, if interpreted as a directive to write authentically, about emotional territory one understands. It doesn’t matter if your story is set on a 30th-century spacecraft or a 13th century Chinese farm– if you’re writing about humans, you need to tap into the human experience as you understand it. Mine the emotional experiences that you find particularly compelling.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s