The Myth of “Write What You Know”

When I was in high school, I wrote a short play that won a statewide competition, and part of the prize was that I got to produce it at the Texas Educational Theatre Association’s annual conference. My play was a family drama, and during the Q&A session after the performance, somebody in the audience asked if I had been through the same things my characters had. When I told her I hadn’t, she narrowed her eyes and said, “How could you possibly write about something you don’t know anything about?”

I don’t remember how I answered the woman, but to this day I think about that question every time I hear someone telling aspiring writers to “write what you know.” 

The advice may be well intentioned, but we tend to take it too far, translating it to mean “write only what you know,” meaning that we can only write about places we’ve been, people we’ve known, and experiences we’ve had. And, sure, there’s something to be said from mining your own experiences, especially when you’re just starting out. But what if we really took “write what you know” to heart? There’d be no fantasy, no sci-fi, no historical fiction…there’d be nothing to read but thinly veiled memoir.

Here’s what I think we should tell writers instead:

Write what you love, and use what you know. 

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We’re (probably) never going to have firsthand knowledge of magic or the Victorian era or murder mysteries or any of the wonderful, inventive elements of the fiction we love to read. So we need to feel free to imagine and create.

But we do have firsthand experience with human emotions. We know what it’s like to be ecstatic, devastated, both at once, and everything in between. We do have firsthand experience with friends, family, and romantic interests. We know what it’s like to want things and resent things. We know what it’s like to get what we want and to get let down.

So when we say “write what you know,” that’s all that should mean. Create the wildest, most impossible scenario you can dream up, and draw on the human experience, with which you’re intimately familiar, to make it real.