“Write what you know.”
I know. You’ve heard that before. But have you ever really looked into it? I mean, have you ever really looked deeply into it. Well if you’re in the mood to be overwhelmed, go ahead and type those four little words into Google. I’ll wait here. Take your time. No rush. I’ve got nothing better to do. Trust me. My social life is utterly repug right now. Really. It’s quite depressing. I’ve got plenty of time to kill.
If so, I bet you ended up seeing a cacophony of opinions and think pieces on the subject – more than you ever thought fifteen letters could possibly elicit.
But on the off-chance that you didn’t Google it (and I bet you didn’t, you jerk), I’ll sum it up for you. We can group everybody’s opinions into three basic camps. Camp One thinks that it’s the single greatest piece of writing advice a writer could ever hope to follow. Camp Two think that it’s utterly blasphemous, infantile, and overall pretty shitty. And Camp Three thinks that it could be a solid piece of advice, but that it’s completely misunderstood.
As for me? As I said before, my social life is lacking – so I was never invited to go out camping in the first place. But from where I’m standing here along the freeway, I’d say that each camp is a little bit right.
Which is why I’d change the whole “write what you know” to this:
Write what you
I know. It’s an incomplete sentence. Which I bet you think is a bit of a cop out. But by making it an incomplete sentence, we can make that piece of advice so much more versatile. By making it an incomplete sentence, you can fill in the blank to suit your needs and help make yourself a more well-rounded writer.
For example: if you’d like, you can stick with the original and:
Write what you know
If you’re reading this, then chances are you’re probably a human. So first off, hello fellow human. Secondly, as a human I bet you know a lot of shit already. For example, you probably know a little bit about all that human emotion stuff. Like love. Or hate. Greed. Jealousy. Envy. Nostalgia. Lust. Desperation. Hopefulness. Anger. Excitement.
You get the picture.
As a human, you already have some sort of base understanding of other humans. Granted, you may not know a lot about humans who come from very different lives from you: i.e. humans with different genders, different economic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, different sexual attractions, different nationalities, etc. And as a human, you may find yourself somewhat confined in your own little world and consequently (and unfortunately) not all-knowing. But at least you have a foundation to work with.
And in order to make up the difference, you can also go with this:
Write what you discover
If you’re writing, then there’s already a good chance that you’re not going through life completely closed off to other people. And if you are – cut the shit. Honestly. Cut it out. Stop it.
As a writer, you should be open. Strike that – you need to be open. You need to be always listening. Always hearing. Always discovering. You are a sponge, and you should be soaking up other people’s lives and perspectives and experiences and stories. Talk to people who are different than you. People who come from different places and have different opinions and have different struggles. Learn something about the ways of life from somebody else. Or at the very least, just try to understand people better.
But be forewarned. In order to do that, you’ll find that you also have to:
Write what you research
I’m currently starting work on a novel that revolves around memory (more to come on that soon). Now here’s the funny thing: prior to working on this, I knew jack shit about memory. I mean, I didn’t even really know much about the human brain.
So after doing a basic outline of the plot, I spent a few months researching memory. What it is. What it looks like. How it functions. And I discovered that memory is absolutely fascinating. Seriously. It’s fucking bananas. Memory impacts every facet of our life. It’s basically all powerful.
Through this research, I was able to better understand what it was I wanted to write. It also opened the door to other possibilities and to a deeper story. So after I finished researching, I went back and revised my outline and expanded my story in ways I would have never thought possible. And as I begin to write this novel, I know I’ll have to fill in some blanks with even more research.
Note that research will also add a greater degree of authenticity to any story you write. If you understand about what you’re writing, your readers will ultimately feel more encapsulated in the world you’re creating. Put simply: they’ll be more likely to believe you.
Of course, we could go on and on.
Write what you experience.
Write what you study.
Write what you remember. Write what you explore. Write what you uncover. What what you traveled. Write what you meet. So on and so forth.
The underlying message here is that your writing should be backed up by something substantial. And sometimes, that “something substantial” takes time and effort to develop. Other times, that “something substantial” already lies somewhere within you.
You’ll need to borrow from both. Your stories will become better because of it. And who knows? You may just become a more interesting person in the process.