One of the earliest – and most misleading – pieces of writing advice I ever got was “Write what you know.”
I’m not sure when I first heard it. I was still counting my age in single digits, though, and scribbling away with sparkly pencils in ratty spiral-bound notebooks. Some helpful adult probably offered me this chestnut when I was staring into space and wondering out loud what should come next.
“Write what you know.”
I knew I loved horses, so I took it to heart and cranked out thousands of words about girls who loved horses and rode horses and saved horses from evildoers and sometimes even turned into horses. Not all of these things actually happened to me–especially the relentless iterations of the girl talking her parents into getting her a horse of her own–but nine-year-old J cheerfully rationalized these stories as the way things should be.
But in my early teens I was drawn inexorably into the middle ages, and I was conflicted. How could I write what I knew if my parents kept refusing to move to Wales? If time travel had yet to become reliable, affordable and – well – existent?
But I was determined, so I jumped into the middle ages with both feet. I researched wool production and battlefield tactics and recipes, but I also wrote characters like they were people I knew. That’s when I figured out that write what you know didn’t really mean write what you know. At least, not in the way I thought it did.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s powerful Monday post about vulnerability gets at the heart of write what you know and makes it a useful construct. The literal event she wrote about was fictional, but the sheer force of emotion behind it sure as heck wasn’t. That’s the part she knew. She wrote what she knew, and that’s what made the prose sing off the page.
One of those thresholds you step over when you become agented and sold is that your writing changes in some imperceptible way, and maybe this is it. Maybe it’s when this sort of raw energy pours through your fingers and makes everything real because it’s true, every word, even when you’re writing about things you’ve never done or could do or would even want to do. It’s how we can write about coal mining and magic and foster care and outer space and dragons with conviction, confidence and authority.
It’s not necessarily about physically being somewhere or doing something. You can be somewhere and not know anything about it. In a lot of ways, knowing is seeing things a certain way and being able to get that picture or idea or feeling into someone else’s head. We know these things in an essential way because we open the vein and pour it onto the page. This is how you write what you know. It’s a lot harder than just being there.
But probably not as hard as time travel.