Write what you know.
Sounds easy, right? Right up until you sit down and open up an empty Word file. Probably a couple hours later, you have twenty open tabs and several pages of notes and still a blank Word file. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you have a page of something, but are unsure how to continue. Trust me, you’re not alone in this scenario. We’ve all been there.
So where does the “write what you know” fit in?
There was a time, about 7 years ago, when I was considering graduate school for writing (whooooole ‘nother topic for a later date…). For each college application it was required to submit 2-3 writing samples of varying lengths. Sure, no problem. Well, one. All my ideas and stories were dark and weird. I went back and looked at all my writings up to this point and all of them were dark. ALL of them. I couldn’t even write a happy ending, much less a semi-happy story. Next great American novel? It sure as heck wasn’t gonna be from this girl.
Spoiler: I didn’t pursue grad school.
Looking deeper, I began to see a recurring theme: There was always a young female character with the same personality traits and tragic history in every single story. Those personality traits? Mine. Tragic history? Mine. (More or less) Circumstances and consequences? Yup, mine, too.
I had been subconsciously writing myself into every story. I tried to stop it, but you know what? It didn’t work. The stories sucked; the characters were wooden. I had a stack of unfinished, uninspired junk. I was horrified and frustrated. Was I being a narcissist writing myself into everything? Would I ever be able to write something that was even remotely upbeat? I kept trying and my frustration kept growing. Finally, I just gave up.
My writing started to suck when I stopped purposely stopped injecting myself into it. I wasn’t writing what I know. And what I know is me. I know my pain, sorrow, anger, depression, frustration, failing at perfection, my perceived failure of acceptance. I know my history, my family and friends, my cirucmstances and environment. Every writer, every person, has their own story to tell based on what they know. And that’s why we have so many books, often on similar subjects and themes, from so many voices. Each one is unique because each one is writing what they know.
This is what write what you know means–at least to me. And I think that’s a great thing. Not only does it allow us to dig and know ourselves better, but each voice gives us a new perspective to contemplate, discuss and learn from. I no longer force myself to write against what comes naturally. My stories are still dark, torturous and emotional, but now I don’t try to hide it. I accept it as I accept myself because it’s what I know.