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.

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