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?

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The Practice of Writing

While having coffee with a friend last week, talking about our writing and what we’re working on, I realized I have several stories I wrote five, six or even seven years ago that I keep coming back to. I visit them from time to time, their characters still rattling around in my mind like old friends I haven’t seen in a while. I wondered, is it sad that after so much time I am still hung up on stories I wrote so long ago? Is it time to let them go, to move on?

I see every piece I write, regardless of whether or not it ever sees the light of day, as practice. Whether it is a short story I wrote in a workshop or a few pages written in a burst of inspiration, they are all part of the practice of writing. With each revision I am stretching my writing muscles, developing my plot a little deeper, breathing more life into my characters.

I can look back on the various drafts of these stories and see their progression and my growth as a writer. Though I originally wrote these stories several years ago, over that time, they have evolved. They have gone from first drafts written hastily in order to meet a deadline, to second drafts and third drafts, each one better than the last.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about what she calls, composting:

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Soil

Every story has value, it is all practice. It is compost for us to work with, none of it is wasted.

I save just about everything I write, including those little passages and pages written in a moment of insight that didn’t amount to much. Those are always fun to come back to; they are characters, scenes and moments in time that stay with me that may eventually turn into something more.

Those deleted scenes, discarded characters and unused settings are all part of that compost too.

My error is not that I have held on to these stories for too long;  it is that I have neglected to bring any one of them to a stage of being polished and print ready. Rather than doing the hard work and editing necessary to finish them, each time I’ve returned to them I’ve  left them in some state of in-completion.

If a piece no longer has movement, if there is nothing left I can do with a story to move it forward then perhaps, yes, it becomes time to “move on.” Until then,  I will still think of them every now and again when I hear a particular turn of phrase or a certain song on the radio, and I’ll continue to work the soil.

Do you still return to poems or stories you wrote years ago? What keeps you coming back to them and how do you know when it is time to move on?