Write What You Know
Updated: Jan 11, 2020
I've been thinking lately about the advice I received when I was a young writer, the encouragement I had to explore my "gift." Adults around me presented the world of literature as full of wonder, and when you're mostly reading Dr. Seuss and adventure stories from Isaac Asimov, Roal Dahl, and Lloyd Alexander, that's a fair assessment.
Like most who write as adults, I showed promise young, and got invited to take part in specialized writing workshops that took me out of the regular school day. I remember my first came when I was very young, just six-years old, and the instructor read a few pieces of his before turning us toward our own papers to practice. He had written something about some kind of parasite--I don't remember what. Not leeches. But the blood-suckers in question had some fun, colloquial name that caught my imagination, so I tried writing about them. The problem was, I knew nothing about them, having had not experience with them and only having just discovered their existence when the instructor mentioned them in his writing minutes before. So their name sat at the top of my blank page, and I stared at it without a word to put down.
The instructor noticed me quietly struggling, and when I explained to him my problem, he told me that I should write about something I had experienced. These parasites were his experience, not mine. This was my first exposure to the "write what you know" maxim.
Now, I'm an adult writer writing adult things, now entering my fifth decade of life (congratulations to me). I've successfully published for the first time, and I'm thinking back on the past decade and a half where I went about writing very, very seriously, going through periods of setting myself regular word-count goals and feeling like a failure when I didn't meet them. And now I feel like what held me back was not a lack of artistic zeal, the determination to churn out pages, but the fact that I didn't really have a story to tell, or whatever story I did have, I didn't quite understand it enough yet. Friends who read what I wrote would often say it was clever but that there was "something missing." They didn't know what it was, and I didn't know. I didn't know that I didn't know what I didn't know and didn't know how to go about learning it.
I'm glad that during that time I learned some things about structuring sentences and paragraphs, mostly from teaching grammar to college students, and I'm glad too that I had the good idea to look outside of myself and what I knew to sit down with Miss Doug over several Saturday lunches to listen to and record her telling me stories. Her stories, I now see, had all the richness of self-knowledge mine lacked at that time.
So that would by my advice to other writers struggling with their craft--know yourself. Go into therapy. Don't think you need therapy? Everyone needs a little. Join a 12 Step program. If you aren't an addict yourself (being a writer, there's strong odds you are), then join Al-Anon, because you probably know an addict at least. And if all that self-awareness still finds you with an empty well, then go plumbing someone else's. Talk to your family, your friends, that weirdo at the coffee shop. Listen to their stories. Silence your own voice and to let yourself become theirs.
And then, like Hemingway says, "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
Except, don't follow the Hemingway model all the way to where he shoots himself for feeling his inspiration has left him, because life should be lived for its own sake. We are here to live and live well, not to sacrifice our existence for the sake of telling a memorable story. Somewhere in all this research and reflection, I believe we have to learn how to love this life in its stillness, its simplicity, its mundane day-to-day moments. And when we are able to find that quiet joy, when we face adversity and discover our resilience, when we can love ourselves regardless of how many words we've put on how many pages or how many people have read them, then I think we have a story worth sharing.