It’s one of the oldest clichés out there, but it’s been around for so long, it’s got to carry some truth, hasn’t it?
“Write about what you know.” It’s easily one of the laziest phrases dished out either by writers, or to writers.
And I’ll be honest, I “sort of” agree with it, but not in the literal way that it’s frequently taken.
More often than not, “write what you know” means concentrate on the technical aspects of a story that you understand personally. If you’re a teacher, set your story in a school, because you know about that. If you’re a construction worker, set your story on a building-site. I’ve witnessed this actual advice being dispenced.
But seriously, is that really good advice? How many detective novel-writers have worked in a detective agency, or for a police force? Sure, some of them did. But wouldn’t writing the painstaking procedural details in a case be a little boring anyway?
Let’s take it further: Did Steven Spielberg write about “what he knew” when he contributed to the story of his movie E.T.? How much experience did he or the screenwriter Melissa Mathison have with extra-terrestrial life, or the sinister government agencies who would deal with the presence of a being from another world on our doorstep? I’m not going out on much of a limb to say that they both knew fairly close to diddly-squat.
But think about what else is going on in that story. A young boy, Elliot, is living with his mother and siblings. The father is absent. Spielberg’s dad also left the family home when Steven was a little boy.
So Spielberg didn’t know about extra-terrestrials, or how a government bureaucracy operates. But he knew what it was like to be a young boy without a father-figure. What it meant to feel alone and scared. And maybe how a special friend can make you feel better about things, and how close that new bond can become.
He was writing (okay, directing) about what he knows emotionally, rather than technically. I think that is the real truth behind “write what you know.” Think about it, how else could most of our fiction have ever come to exist?
I don’t know what it’s like to be a burnt out LAPD homicide detective. But I know what’s it’s like to be under pressure to perform, with deadlines looming, and people counting on you to deliver. It’s the emotional knowledge that you have to bring to a story, and not the technical details. You can learn about them, or just make them up. If they feel right, then there’s a good chance they’ll feel right to your audience. If you want research and get a technical detail right, then go ahead. But the idea that you can only write about things you’ve done and said are a fast-track way to crippling a writer’s creativity.
So maybe, instead of “write what you know,” we should insetad say “write about what you feel.”