What does “Write What you Know” Really Mean?

We’ve all heard the writing advice: write what you know.

If taken literally, this bit of wisdom can be perplexing. If we only write what we know, how can we pursue new places and things in our stories? If I only wrote what I knew, all my stories would be about a middle class white girl in the suburbs.

So what does this advice really mean?

A few months back I came across a blog that shared this video, and it has really stuck with me. Take a look:

Gervais says, “Being honest is what counts. Trying to make the ordinary extraordinary is so much better than starting with the extraordinary because it doesn’t really connect…”

I think what Gervais is touching on here is that it’s the intimacy with what we know that comes across on the page. We must start with the details: the smell of tea and lavender. These are the (perhaps seemingly mundane) details that breathe life into the world of our story. The sensory details, the specifics we pull from our everyday lives are the things that make our stories feel real, they are what our readers connect with.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “…using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believably and truthfulness. It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build.”

Our experiences are the basis for our stories, they are what we bring to the table as writers.

Anne Lamott said, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” She also said, “When you tell the truth it turns out to be universal.”

We might believe that unless we have overcome some great hardship, endured a tragedy or experienced a wild adventure, our lives are uninteresting. But hidden in those seemingly mundane experiences of our everyday lives are the secrets we thought we’d never tell anyone, our fears we believed would make us freaks or outcasts – these are the universal truths we uncover in our writing.

For example, I’m currently reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and there was a magical moment where I learned I was not the only socially anxious English major to have had a fear of college dining halls:

“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you, (And the ones you can’t Google.) Like, where does the line start? What food can you take? Where are you supposed to stand, then where are you supposed to sit? Where do you go when you’re done, why is everyone watching you? …”

From chapter 2, Fangirl Copyright 2013 by Rainbow Rowell

And all the time I’m reading this, I am thinking, Yes! I thought I was the only one! I thought I was the only socially awkward person with these irrational fears but here is this author, writing about it as if she pulled the thoughts from my mind.

Perhaps Rainbow Rowell had these fears too or knew someone who was brave enough to share those fears with her. Those are our truths that turn out to be universal.

This is the intimacy, the truthfulness, I am always trying to achieve in my writing. Moments like this are why I write (and why I love to read.)

What is your take on this advice? What does “write what you know” mean to you?

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Books for Writers: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first book on writing I ever owned is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I received it as a Christmas gift from my aunt when I was in high school and dreaming of becoming a bestselling novelist. I read the title and thought, “Why is she giving me a book about birds??” But when I read the full title I noticed it said: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

It’s a book I didn’t fully appreciate for a long time until I finally sat down and really read it. I have since re-read it many times and often pick it up to reference particularly helpful passages. I find that I discover something new each time I read it. Now, my copy of Bird by Bird is well worn. It has so many markings and underlined passages I couldn’t even begin to share them all.

Lamott starts by reminding us that, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” She says, “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Lamott offers this bit of advice about getting started:  write about your childhood. One of the first times I read this book, I took Lamott’s advice and I recently came across those writings I had written years ago, reflections about my turbulent years in junior high, a recounting of my awful first kiss. I was grateful to find these pieces, grateful that I had recorded these parts of my life that I’d much rather forget because let’s face it, it makes great material!

Lamott writes about the writing life, and issues like writer’s block, and perfectionism. She offers ways to silence your inner critic (see the chapter on Radio Station KFKD.) She writes frankly and honestly about getting published (and the myth of publication) about which she says, “…if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” She reminds us the real payoff is the writing itself.

She offers advice, like writing short assignments, carrying around index cards, and one of my favorite bits of writing advice, shitty first drafts (More on that in a future post!)

She writes about character, – it takes time for you to know them –  plot, – Plot grows out of character – and dialogue, – good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping.

So much of that advice, so much of what I have learned about writing the hard way, is all written here in this book.

Anne Lamott is funny and honest, sharing her own triumphs, tribulations and humiliations. Reading about her experiences reminds me that I’m not alone in those moments when I sit at my computer staring at the cursor blinking back at me, feeling as though I should just give up on writing altogether. Her stories have stayed with me, and have offered solace and humor in my own writing tribulations.

If you are a writer this book is an absolute must-have.