Do you agree with the adage “Write what you know”? What does this seemingly simple sentence mean? And what are the implications for writers?
Mark Twain wrote “Write what you know.” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These four words have been used and misused ever since. In a world full of complications, we love a piece of ‘simple’ advice – a quick piece of guidance we can take away with us, tuck into our bag of tricks and pull out whenever we need. But advice is just that – it is guidance and as such should be interpreted fluidly. Writing is all about creation and should include a good dose of experimentation and imagination. ‘Write what you know” can become limited to a simple recording of events.
If you interpret ‘Write what you know’ as only writing about aspects of acquired knowledge or facts, you are missing the point. I have a teaching and publishing background – if I only write about these particular things, my writing, while conveying great understanding of the topic, would soon become repetitive and tedious. And if I concentrate on writing from the events of my own live, all of my writing would become autobiographical (which is fine if my intention is to write my autobiography). We know a great many more things than our particular expertise and skill set, we know much more than what has happened to us in our lifetime. We, each of us, knows how to live and we know emotion. We are all feeling creatures.
When I began writing, I wrote what I knew…I wrote about various aspects of my inner life. It was an exploration of who I was, who I was becoming and who I wanted to be; it was an investigation into what the world was about and finding my place in it. I wrote to understand. My early explorative writings looked at what happened in the spaces between things – between person to person, between person and place, between the physical person and their inner life. I began with what I knew of my own experience and applied this to new situations, and I took experiences that were unknown to me and placed myself (the known) in them.
When we inject our writing with the understanding of emotion that we have gained through our own experiences, we bring depth and authenticity to our writing. That is the real key to write what you know.
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