Despite all the courses, books, seminars, and schools, the funny thing is no one can really teach you how to write. The best anyone can do is administer to what’s already there. To that effect, there is a lot of advice I’ve been given over the course of my relatively short career as a writer, much of it from people who haven’t written much themselves. However, probably the one I hear the most is, “Write what you know/Write from your life.”
This is singularly the most versatile and useless advice I have ever been given, mainly because it can mean virtually anything, but everyone is sure that their interpretation is the right one. Depending on who you ask, this can mean:
“Write only about what you’ve done.”
“Research whatever you’re writing to make sure it’s accurate.”
“Write about your life, not the life you wish you had.”
“Write about the people you’ve known.”
“Write about yourself.”
There’s probably about a dozen or more versions of this that I’m missing, maybe more, but I think you get the idea. I’d like to think there’s a bit of wisdom to each, but it’s an uneasy balance. Personally, for setups I try to write what I know and research what I don’t, but that’s the easy part. When it comes to my life, how much of it ends up on the page and in my characters is always a question, one that must be revisited with every new work. If I hold back too much, the characters lack any real life, and the story becomes purely an intellectual exercise. If I funnel too much of myself into any one character, he or she becomes just a shadow of myself, and makes me hesitant to take risks with him or her. If I do that with all my characters, I end up with a dozen versions of the same person, which is not just monotonous but painful to read.
I try to put a small piece of myself into every character I write. One may get my sense of mischief, the other my knowledge of isolation, and yet another will be imbued with my hunger for adventure. They all get something, so no single character gets everything. However, this approach is not without flaw.
Someone once told me that my characters, while far from idealized, lacked a certain something. They unthinkingly repeated that same age old advice, “Write what you know,” as if that solved everything, but really was more frustrating than illuminating. After a long, slightly heated conversation, and some soul-searching, I finally figured out what she meant.
Like a lot of writers, I’m hardly what you would call outspoken. Writing was always an easier outlet for me, because when I write I can channel away things like anger, fear, and anxiety. It took me a while to realize why when I wrote those more negative emotions always they came out feeling so hollow. So apparently, “write what you know” can also mean including the things that you wish you didn’t, or even things you don’t normally think about. It was an interesting realization, and one I am not likely to forget any time soon.
When you think about it, “write what you know” isn’t as meaningless as it first appears. Just as no two writers share a style, its meaning lies within the individual. Discard it, embrace it, or refine it, as long as you question its meaning it has pretty much done its work for you.
So the question is, what does it mean to you?