© Jessica P. Morrell
Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real. ~ Rachel Gardner
I spend much of my life dispensing writing advice. This garners me a lot of interesting emails and a sometimes paralyzing sense of responsibility. But I believe in writing advice. The pros that I learned from taught me a lot and I’m always grateful for them. But of course there are no infallible truths or formulas or that one True Shining Path to Publication. And then there is just a lot of plain old hokum in the writing world.
Sensible writers don’t believe every adage about writing since some advice aimed at us is just plain silly or easily misinterpreted such as “write what you know.” The truth is, write what you know, if it works for you. Most of us are a bit too iconoclastic, anti-rule and anti-one-size fits all to buy that one hook, line, and red ink. Because if we all wrote only about what we knew, well, I’m afraid that not much would get written.
It’s highly unlikely that most mystery writers have actually killed anyone, but still their villains slash, mangle and strangle their victims. And the blood pooling beneath gaping wounds are realistic, as is the forensic evidence. Most fantasy writers haven’t run across trolls, princesses, warlocks, and such in their travels. At least I hope not. Often our writing is based on research, imagination and, dare I say, wish fulfillment.
You don’t need to be a private investigator, coroner, gambler, cheat, sex addict, embezzler, wanderer or horse thief to be a writer. And women can write with realism about male characters, as can men write about the females of our species. (However, if you’ve gone through life crippled by bafflement over the opposite sex, it might not work out to base your main character on that chromosomal opposite. Sticking with your own kind sometimes works best.) You don’t even need to be excessively neurotic to write, although a few quirks such as obsessiveness certainly help to stir the pot.
Writers need to think deeply; allow their imaginations to roam fancy free; harbor more curiosity than is good for our health, and possess a bent for risk taking. Writing always requires risk and if you write only what you know, what is familiar or easy, you’re not really writing, you’re taking dictation and the results will be revealed in your skinty approach.
What you can do is start from a place that feels authentic and potent. This starting position means you will see something that others don’t, and you’ll want to share your vision, or your version of truth or meaning. What you can do is portray emotions we have felt deeply, profoundly; that have rocked us raw and to our core. These feelings, sometimes that visited in the lonely hours before dawn like a grave robber — envy, loss, grief, and worry― will infuse your writing with credibility and the breath of life. We can write about vexations that keep us awake at 2 AM. We can write about memories that haunt us. You can write about the nagging impulses and annoyances that won’t let go. You can write about the crossroads in our lives, the broken places, the regrets, the places you’ve never dared venture.
If you write fiction you want to send your character into new physical and emotional territory. If your characters stay within the walls of your real and possibly ordinary life, however, they likely won’t ignite the story. Write about conversations that you’re afraid to begin, thoughts you’re terrified to entertain, adventures you’d never dare. Let loose.
Write because the story, the sentence, the poem means something to you. As John Gardner said, “I want stories in which the author shows frank concerns, not self-protective, ‘sensible’ detachment.” I don’t trust people or writers who specialize in detachment. Show me your bruises and burdens any day, not your cynical disengagement. I want to hang with people who feel deeply, but then are sensible with what they do with all those feelings. They harvest them somehow—into stories or gardens or crazy mud sculptures.
I want to read stories penned by people who are as wonderstruck as a two year old visiting the ocean for the first time. I want to read about how they experience vulnerability. After all, if you write about vulnerability in your true stories, or in your characters, readers will care. Because we get it. Just like we get loneliness and despair and betrayal. So write from that chipped, raw, whiskey-voiced place in you. The old and weary and weathered place in you as well as the places of new growth.
Lose control as often as possible, just as you do in your wildest nighttime dreams, just as you did those few times in life when your backbone was straight and your voice shrill. In fact, at times write from the shrillest part of yourself, not the softest. Travel a savage journey to your own heart. Or find the part of you that craves anarchy and pathos. Write about guilt and shame, emotions so powerful they can topple the largest among us. Write to talk back to the craziness on the planet, but don’t vent, preach, or climb on your soapbox. Instead, find the human stories in the issues, an entertaining or enlightening format for your anger or frustration.
Write about horrors like crimes against children. Write about heartbreak and gangs and blood feuds and families who cannot connect or love each other nearly enough. But don’t attempt to mimic life; you need to add a bit more. Or a lot more. Even when writing narrative nonfiction, there needs to be a stepping back and thoughtful assessment of events and themes they imply.
So perhaps a more helpful adage for writers is to write what fascinates you or won’t stop haunting you. We learn so much by writing. Not only how to shape ideas into scenes and characters and death marches and haunted grave yards. But also we find ways to stamp our authentic way of seeing the world. You need that lens and perception to sift through what to keep and what to leave out, what to focus on, and what gets in the way. You need to stamp all the words that come from you with a credible voice, communicating your understanding of the human heart.
And if you do want to write about you know, especially about the ordinary, the daily, the small parts of life, go ahead. But endow or imbue those observations with something deeper, some fresh slant, or irony, or new understanding. Write it new.
Jessica Page Morrell lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected; Bullies, Bastards & Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction; The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life; Voices from the Street; Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing and Writing Out the Storm.
Morrell conducts writing workshops in the Northwest and is a popular lecturer and speaker at writing conferences. She founded Summer in the Woods, a yearly writing conference on the Oregon coast. Her monthly column about topics related to writing appears in the Willamette writer. She contributes to The Writer and Writers’ Digest magazines, and writes a monthly email letter The Writing Life. She works as a development editor on fiction, memoirs and nonfiction books with a special focus on logic and voice. Her web log at http://thewritinglife.blogspot.com offers more writing tips and her website is www.jessicamorrell.com.