Writing what you know is one of those old canards that show up in writing advice, though it's not up there with things like “show, don't tell” and “this is supposed to be a literary essay - do not doodle in the margins”.
Or is that last one just me?
My cousin was once fined for “doodling in the margins”. ‘Nother story.
“Writing what you know” used to sound to me like a requirement for writing stories that were AUTHENTIC. Makes sense i guess - but how could I write only what I know and still tell stories about pirates, space captains, dragons or video store clerks? Well, that last one I could do.
So is that just nonsensical advice to be discarded in favor of using our imagination and making up what we want?
It’s probably in the area of emotions that this advice has its place - a story or series is not REALLY just about dragons or pirates or clerks. The feelings the characters have and challenges and interactions they have with each other and the world at large on an EMOTIONAL level is where we bring to bear our own experiences and ‘what we know’.
Human experiences, good, bad and mixed, stuff that brings us joy, despair, fear, ecstasy, and dread - that's the raw material that we can translate to stories of any genre. We repurpose that genuine stuff into any fantastical stories we can think of. That's what gives our stories real juice.
We're not old timey pirates (well, some of us are), but we can bring our own experiences with ambition, loneliness, feeling loss, feeling victory, feeling companionship or competitiveness or love or hate or fear…that's the stuff we can tap into.
In the way that great actors inhabit the characters they play and “become them” emotionally and psychologically to give an authentic portrayal is the type of thing we're talking about.
Of course, there's a matter of research and expanding our knowledge of how OTHER people might react differently than we do is part of it, too. But I think it's the emotional inhabiting of our stories that the “write what you know” advice is getting at.
What do you think ‘write what you know’ means? And do you?
Banes at 12:00AM, May 7, 2020
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