'Write What You Know' - Good or Bad?
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
''It's not your story to tell' is such a depressing phrase when it comes to fiction. That's the point of fiction'
- Matt Haig
Bare with me on this one because I'm trying something a little different. There's been a lot of chatter about the subject of personal experience when telling stories as of late. Whether it's authors and screenwriters on Twitter debating over the validity of certain texts (they're always debating something) or Billie Eilish saying she's fed up with rap music 'lying' about having guns and committing violence, it all whittles down to people arguing over whether texts and art should come from experience and truth.
Chances are if you've read this far you've already got your own opinion on the matter. And why wouldn't you? It seems like the simplest of debates and one that seems ridiculous to even give additional time to. But at the same time, it's a very modern argument that can lead to difficult conversations and confrontations (but what doesn't now?). Basically as a writer, should I be writing about topics and situations in which I have experience in? As a (relatively well-off) white male would it be wrong of me to write a story from the perspective of an Islamic Muslim woman? Jumping in at the deep end I know but there's a point trust me.
"”Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers."
- Kazuo Ishiguro
The fact is I have written about experiences other than my own. I've written a comedy sketch about a devout, besodden and befuddled priest (two, actually) - I even played the priest himself despite the fact I'm not remotely religious. Outside of silly Youtube videos I've written a short film about an Irish Catholic teenage girl who falls pregnant because I was asked if I wanted to. I researched into the subject for days and days so that I could tell as truthful a story as I could, but by some people's arguments that still wouldn't be right or enough.
The phrase 'write what you know' springs to mind when talking about the subject. It's a gateway piece of advice for people getting into writing to try and inspire them by softening the difficult challenge of actually writing by making it more personal. Everyone is able to write about themselves in some capacity, and 'write what you know' allows them to kickstart a project, whether it be a story or a screenplay or a song, easily for the first time by easing them into it. You're naturally supposed to progress from then on and develop your own style and identity which informs your work. To help us frame how this ill-begotten piece of advice can actually be helpful however, we're going to have to take it back to my man Russell T Davies.
"Remember when you first wanted to be a writer? Eight or 10 years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viney jungles toward untold wonders? That’s what you wanted to write about, about what you didn’t know. So. What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”
- Ken Kesey
In his podcast/interview with RED Production Company (yes I'm still sourcing this for information and will never stop until I've wrung it dry) Davies details how he'd hate to be a new writer in the modern age. He cites the devastating distractions of technology of course but also touches on the rise of what he calls 'Mary Sue Writing'. This is when an audience or studio assume that an unknown writers' protagonist is an extension of itself. He refers to it as 'Mary Sue Writing' because it's mostly targeted at young women writers, yet it's still prevalent across the board - "there's a superstitious fear of writers, people want to stop them." Whilst this concept is presented as a negative, Davies argues that it should be used as a positive by flipping the so-often used advice on its head - instead of writing what you know, you should be writing what you've felt.
The advice isn't situational at all, if it was then the only things I'd be capable of writing about would be endless days of solitude and an addiction to chocolate milk. Russell takes pride in stating that he believes all of his characters sound the same and act as an extension of a part of him - it's his writing style. Whilst promoting the criminally-overlooked Years & Years he explains that Celeste, a Jamaican mother with a short fuse is an extension of his family duties and stern side whilst the spineless and conflicted Stephen is a version of him that gives into his own personal doubts. If you want to call yourself a writer you have to be able to write anything.
"Who wasn't lonely in school? Who hasn't wanted to kill someone?" When you think about it, you actually know quite a lot because people tend to spend so much time in their heads over analyzing things and thinking to themselves (well, writers tend to anyway...anything to procrastinate). The things you know are the emotions and traits that you flesh out a character with, it doesn't matter who they are, by giving them a piece of you you're automatically forming a connection and (hopefully) making your writing stronger. About two years ago I wrote a short film I that initially started out with the concept 'a guy returns to his hometown after finishing university only to realise he hates everyone there'. Everytime I told that concept to people they'd smile and go 'oh yeah, know that feeling' because it's...relatable and easy to explain. However, the film actually banished that prospect almost immediately, sure the protagonist's situation was still the same, but his backstory and relationships were all ones I both had to invent as well as draw from personal experience for.
"You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources"
- Zoë Heller
It's nothing more complicated than the old saying of turning your pain into art. Fed up with you situation in life? Then tell a story of escape set on a far away world of your choosing. Your character will still connect because you'll share that feeling of frustration - Moana, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Fight Club, maybe even Wall-E all fit this bill. Emotion is typically the throughline that bypasses most of the rules and advice handed out and it's a writer's greatest weapon. Even action movies designed for thrills and nothing but spectacle have to meticulously craft such set pieces in order to gauge an emotional response from their audience, and where do you think they learn how to get that same thrill to emulate?
Of course, it's easier to write about situations nobody has had experience in - typically genres like science fiction and horror. That way there's less pressure from the worry that somebody who actually has been an Irish Catholic teenager can call you wrong or even worse...lazy. In the current landscape there are more people than ever who can take things like misrepresentation out of context and see it as offensive, and whilst some of these claims are accurate it's more of a case of the writer's skill level and writing style. If a 'bad' writer chooses to tackle sensitive situations and subjects, then of course it's going to reflect negatively. However that's a disservice to use such a blanket complaint where there are thousands of writers who put the work in and research extensively the topics they're covering and strive to not only be respectful but entertaining and enlightening too. JD Salinger, Henrik Ibsen and Truman Capote, nobody argues that their heroines are remarkable characters in themselves. It's just a balancing scale, and every now and then you get to have a decent Stephen King female character amidst his descriptions of what's on their chests. Sorry, I couldn't resist.
Of course it's not just gender experiences that cause this issue, but they're the easiest to explain. 'Write what you know' shouldn't be taken at face value, because you have a whole lifetime of emotion to draw from to, so try and ignore the phrase if possible. After all, as Matt Haig says, 'that's the point of fiction'.
Please feel free to get in touch about writing opportunities or anything at all by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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