Writing what you know.

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Thread: Writing what you know.

  1. #1

    Writing what you know.

    I still don't understand what is meant by write what you know and what it truly means. A writer's work is a subconscious process supposedly.


    I investigated the quote and some say mark twain (in a book of fiction it seems) or that Hemingway said it. Now I can say it was attributed to Hemingway because of the Atlantic saying where it came from. But they don't articulate what it truly means. Thus I need a new interpretation from someone who knows its definition. Because I believe stories are fabricated and are made from invention and imagination. Literary stories rely more on real life experiences but still use imagination. Genre stories do not seem to me based on real life. Thus write what you know will not apply in all cases for writers, and thus I don't understand the advice. Is what all I wrote about write what you know said a true or false fact?

    Thus I agree with the article that says that the imagination is what the advice truly means to people. It can't be experiencing many things that are part of your memory. Unless you live a life where others serve you as your source of inspiration. Even if based all on what is real. It is mostly made up. Which is to insist to write from the emotional experience. But that a person's experience is not huge as the above link argues. Why can experience serve a story?


    So unless I missing something it seems to be useless advice or misunderstood.

    Thanks for your patience if I am wrong. The internet has countless sources and I might have missed some important advice from somewhere arguing for this point of view. Does anyone believe in this advice or knows what the saying of writing what you know means?

    I think since experience can be imagined differently to suit our needs as storytellers. Thus dreaming is another word for this.

    I wish I could post something new. But it's a wip. I won't write stories for fear of writing with errors. (I am still waiting for my computer to arrive which needs to install a program so I have been plotting instead of writing).

    Thus to continue what I mean what hemingway truly said and what he means by this is lost. Which is open to interpretation but it is lost in translation for writers. To understand what it truly means is to be inspired by his advice I will assume.
    Last edited by Theglasshouse; June 11th, 2019 at 05:14 PM.
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  2. #2
    Nice question. Well researched. My favorite book is a book about two teenagers with cancer, written by an author who had "experiences of working in a hospital with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses" (Wikipedia). There are things in that book he obviously got from that experience. The book is set in Indianapolis, where the author lives.

    The Old Man and the Sea takes place in Cuba, where Hemingway lived.

    Coincidence? I don't think so.

    If you write about locations you know, cultures you know, and occupations you know, your book will be better. (Be more accurate, come alive, something like that.) Or you have to do a lot of research, and that still probably won't replace real living experiences.

    You're not stuck in your own experiences, and authors have to write about things they haven't experienced. You can try to imagine what it's like to be different. It's fun. You're just at a disadvantage.

    The advice is kind of boring. If you can, write about a place you have lived, in a culture you have lived it. Pick occupations that you know, even if only from reading. If you can't, do the best you can with research and imagination.
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  3. #3
    There’s a lot of different ways to “know” something. If you are born and live your whole life in Chicago, you definitely “know” Chicago. The gray area is when you have lived your whole life in Chicago but want/need to set your story in somewhere else. How do you set a story in Paris if you have never lived in Paris and still fulfill the requirements of a structure like “write what you know”?

    Arguably you cannot. Research is one thing, but you can’t research another life experience easily, right? How does a middle aged cisgendered man write from the POV of a twelve year old transgendered girl and claim to “know” that character without being a clumsy asshole?

    The answer is to abandon “write what you know” and replace it instead with “write what is authentic”. It is possible to write ANYTHING authentically provided one can learn and articulate aspects that are accurate and let imagination do the rest.

    It’s not necessary to know people and places, it is necessary only to have a rich imagination and enough sense and humility to not trip over one’s own shoelaces. This is FICTION. Facts are malleable things
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  4. #4
    I have read lots of military books where the writer had no actual military experience, and seemed to choose his weapons from a catalog (quite a few of those).
    But when I read an author who had the genuine experience, the writing was more believable.

    Also, you cannot impart strong feelings that you yourself have never experienced. If your work lacks true inspiration, it will show.
    So write what you know applies to more than just subject matter.

    Write what you know, and research the hell out of what you don't.

  5. #5
    In other words, write from where you draw your wealth.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    Also, you cannot impart strong feelings that you yourself have never experienced. If your work lacks true inspiration, it will show.
    So write what you know applies to more than just subject matter.
    Not sure about this you know. I have never, thankfully, had a sibling die but my current WIP is about exactly that.

    I feel like I’m writing it authentically because while I have never experienced and therefore do not know “those feelings” I have lost important things and people and can imagine what that could be like. But as far as the direct emotional response to that, yes I am essentially B.S-ing.

    I have written about all kinds of feelings in all kinds of situations I have not directly or even sometimes even indirectly experienced (suicide, drug addiction, child molestation, etc) based on nothing more but “imagine this”, and been told numerous times I have captured it accurately. A couple of those stories are being published.

    So either I’m a very good liar or empathy,imagination, and a certain register of language alone can be a way to tap into emotional issues.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t help to have first hand experience, but I do disagree with the absolutist nature of “you can’t impart strong feelings you have not experienced” because that seems obviously untrue. Unless the definition of the feelings in question is employed very flexibly - e.g I do not know what it feels like to lose a sibling, but I do know what it feels like to lose a pet cat, I have experienced the general form of grief.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    Not sure about this you know. I have never, thankfully, had a sibling die but my current WIP is about exactly that.

    Then you will likely draw that emotion from some other parallel experience. In which case you are writing about something you know because through your own experiences you can identify with that person.
    You are always so literal.

  8. #8
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Ralph Rotten View Post
    Then you will likely draw that emotion from some other parallel experience. In which case you are writing about something you know because through your own experiences you can identify with that person.
    You are always so literal.
    Lol, maybe!

    I think the main problem I have with 'write what you know' is it seems such an obvious truism, you know?

    Like, if we are going to be so broadminded about what it means to 'know something' that we will accept completely tangential experiences (I have siblings, I have seen them hurt, I have worried about them = I therefore know what it means to see a sibling die) as 'writing what we know' then what possible constraints are there?

    Can one not apply a tangential experience of being locked in a basement or going to a shitty school to being a prisoner at Alcatraz circa 1925? If not, why not? Are there not parallel feelings and possibly some crossover realities that can simply be padded with enough research? Is 'knowing' then not just a case of Research + Some vague emotional Connection x Drive?

    It seems to me that one can, effectively, know the core substance of ANY kind of story there is irrespective of experience of first-hand-knowledge. That to 'know' something is simply to do a lot of research, then think about it deeply and empathetic ally enough, and try to apply as much personal intuition as possible to the imagined scenario to create a sense of authenticity.

    Which, fine, but then what is the point of harping on about 'writing what you know'? Why not just 'write what inspires your interest and emotional investment'? What's the difference?
    Last edited by luckyscars; June 10th, 2019 at 05:04 AM.
    "If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree."

  10. #10
    For a long time I had a strong revulsion to the "write what you know" adage, because I felt it prevented me from writing the kind of fiction I liked. If everyone wrote what we knew, where would all the aliens go? The fairies? The dragons? The other planets? A more useful bit of advice might be "write what you read."

    BUT the adage does come from truth. I think what luckyscars is talking about is right on point--when you write about what you don't know (a sibling dying), use what you do know (grief) to tap into that experience. It is also a helpful bit of advice for places, occupations, etc. (like EmmaSohan mentioned); my current longer WIP is set in my home city and the characters are mostly high school and college students, because I did not feel like researching a new city and different jobs (I still had to end up doing a bunch of research, because many of the characters had experiences which I never have had, of course!)

    And when you do come to the point where you want to write more directly from personal experience, that can be a great source of material, as I have more recently found.
    "So long is the way to the unknown, long is the way we have come. . ." ~ Turisas, Five Hundred and One

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