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Writing What You Know, Pt. 1: What Do You Know?

There’s an oft-quoted adage, “Write what you know!” which is simultaneously true and untrue.

It is untrue because, as fiction writers, we are constantly adding details and experiences we don’t know from personal experience. Certain truths underpin our prose, but we express those things through characters and events and surroundings we don’t know from first-hand knowledge. It’s called “Writing the Other” and we do it all the time.

But, on another level, the old adage is true. We write what we know in the sense that writers are, typically, empathetic sponges. We soak up little details about people around us (characters) and the funny, sad, majestic, tragic circumstances of their lives (plot) and we allow these bits and pieces to stew in our creative pressure cooker brains until we can mash-up enough pieces together to form a story. These bits and pieces, when put together, form something with a base built on what we know, but they come forth, onto the page, with a life of their own, a reality of their own. They become their own truth.

If we limit our own writing to only our first-hand experiences, we run out of things to say. (Most of us, myself included, just don’t lead interesting enough lives to fill a life-long career as a writer with engaging exploits.) But, if we absorb details of the trials and tribulations of those around us, or those we learn about in other ways, we can write What We Know from different viewpoints, different outcomes, different places. We can ask “What if?” and provide an answer that is informed and believable, even though it isn’t our exact experience.

If you’ve ever workshopped a fiction piece with a group of writers, you may have experienced this “funny opposite” of the Write What You Know advice: Often, the parts of a story that receive the most criticism in fiction workshops are those parts that are most true. This phenomenon, which I’ve experienced a number of times, is a counter balance of the WWYK adage. What is TRUE in writing fiction is not a list of facts and details reported as if in a courtroom; What is TRUE in fiction are the bigger truths of the human experience, crafted together to provide an opportunity for understanding, growth, and empathy.

In future posts, I’m going to talk about “Writing What You Know” in writing the “Close-to-you Story” and discuss how we litter our fiction with things we DO know, in order to make it feel more real, more complex.

Until then, Happy Writing!!

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