The Pros and Cons of Writing What You Know
If you’re an aspiring author seeking inspiration for your next big idea, at some point you’ll probably have heard somebody recommend that you should “write what you know.” On the one hand, this is encouraging advice; it places trust in you (the writer) to be authentic and true to your inner self in order to find your muse. However, on the flip side, it’s a very woolly phrase and subsequently quite misleading.
The idea of “writing what you know” can risk leading writers onto a path which may – dare I say it – bore your reader to tears. It could be argued that the main reason why people read books is because they wish to escape their everyday lives and occupy someone else’s headspace. Similarly then, writers have parallel motives through writing: it’s an escapist hobby to some extent and though it can be a cathartic process for personal expression, there is also an element where there is definite need to extricate oneself from the written word.
For this reason, having to “write what you know” may put some writers down a creative cul-de-sac if they’re not too careful, but conversely there are also definite merits to this piece of advice. Let’s start exploring some of the pros and cons of “writing what you know” to see if this piece of advice is worth its salt.
If you only wish to “write what you know” there’s little more you have to do other than start writing. There is no research required; ultimately, what you write is merely a translation of what’s already in your head and taking inspiration from the knowledge you have gained and the life you have lived so far. In fact, you could even say that the only commitment this advice forces you to make is to capture your own life story and make it readable. This can lead your story to be more authentic and rooted in realism – the hard part is making it entertaining without veering too close to autobiography or memoir.
The other pro for “writing what you know” is it assumes that the best ideas for stories are ones which don’t necessarily need to strike you like a bolt from the blue, but instead lay dormant, either in your brain or in the annals of your past. No high-concept story ideas are necessary, no subtle external observations either; instead, writing “what you know” implies insularity and self-examination will give you the answers you need. Since writers have to go inward to find inspiration anyway, this can be rewarding, but at the same time, one should always guard against being too honest with oneself, especially if you intend it to be fiction(!)
By interpreting “what you know” purely as transforming your life experiences (occurrences, deeds, actions) into writing, you risk missing out on the biggest part of what makes you tick as a human being: your emotions. “What you know” isn’t just about life’s technicalities, it’s also about what you value in life and exploring how writing can help you express this. For instance, if you have a fraught relationship with a parent, you can always switch the gender of your character and channel this frustration in a way which captures the essence of “what you know” while also allowing you to explore emotions which are latent inside you. You should be careful to ensure that writing “what you know” doesn’t jettison all emotion in the process.
The other unfortunate con behind writing “what you know” is that life, let’s face it, can be dull. It can be a repetitive and endless conveyer belt of bad habits and mind-numbing chores – this can sometimes stultify creative thought and cause the wellspring of fresh ideas to run dry. That said, researching and writing a story which has completely nothing to do with your real life can be an entertaining distraction, so straight-jacketing yourself into channelling your own life may be a bad idea – your story could end up being as mediocre as the very tedium you’re trying to escape(!)
For me, I am no stranger to writing stories based on outlandish ideas, but I always try to root them in the reality of everyday life. In fact, many of my ideas have a (very) loose but embellished connection to my own life, so I still believe there is magic in the tedium. However, if too many writers rely too much on “what you know” and not enough on exploring uncharted territory then this might not make for a very adventurous or inspiring story. In the end, writers should always try to inspire their readers – if your own life doesn’t inspire much more than triviality or banality, then writers should be free to choose their own path. Both paths are valid; it just depends on which one leads to the better story.
© 2017 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Poet, humorous fiction writer and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.