While surfing twitter for a bit this morning (great way to jumpstart the brain. Add coffee, and it’s the best procrastination), I read a very inspirational blog about writing what you know. And while I agree with most of it, I disagree with the overall sentiment. I think that one phrase is among the most misunderstood in the trade of writing.
People hear “write what you know” and think, “Well, I know how to go to high school. I know how to work at McDonalds. I know how to ignore three screaming kids when dinner is late.” No, that’s not really what it means.
Do you know how it feels to hate someone so much it consumes your life? What about the crushing pain of seeing someone you love die? Maybe it’s the thrill of achieving the impossible, or the anxiety that comes just before you present your ideas to the world? THAT, my friends, is what you know.
Writing is not about words, it’s about emotions. I will never know what it is like to be a weak woman. I’m strong willed in the way of a rhinoceros. These typical characters who let the world walk over them? Yep, don’t get it, could never write it (and I tried). I can still write sad, happy, or crazy characters… but they will always have some kind of strength. Whether that’s Mackenzie’s quiet determination to not hurt anyone with her issues, or another character who deals with her problems by cussing louder and just getting a bigger shovel to dig herself out of the proverbial shit.
I know what it feels like to fall in love. I know what it feels like to be scared of it. I know what it feels like to die a little when that love suddenly ends. The highs, the lows, and the anguish are all things I can close my eyes and nearly taste.
All it means to “write what you know” is to take those feelings, those emotions, and those dreams, and stick them in a framework that makes sense. Falling in love in high school? YA. Falling in love with a billionaire? Romance. Falling in love with an alien? Science Fiction. Falling in love with a dragon? Fantasy. Yes, I’m being hyperbolic, but I think you can see what I mean.
Write what you feel. Write what you can understand. If you want to make your readers fall in love with the fantasies that live in your head, write what you know with the kind of clarity that cuts right through their eyes and into the darkest pits of their hearts, and festers. Write the kind of emotions we long to have in our everyday life, and those that we hope to never feel again.