What Does ‘Write What You Know’ Mean?

I love The Writer magazine.  Each month, I look forward to reading it from cover to cover, and finding gems of writing wisdom that I can learn from and use.  I have been a subscriber for many years and consider this magazine to be the writing teacher that lives with me.  Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, poetry or screenplays, The Writer covers it all.

In the July 2010 issue, I discovered a gem that not only illuminated a prickly rule of writing but also deeply moved me for its warm and helpful tone.  Written by the wonderful Ursula K. LeGuin, “Make Your Fiction Truthful” tackles that old rule of “Write What You Know.”  I’ve never really understood what this rule means, actually.  If I wrote what I knew all the time, my writing would be quite narrow indeed.  I write to learn, to expand what I know, to find out about the world and the people who inhabit it.  So, I’ve ignored this rule.  After all, the Perceval series is set in 2048 to 2050, and I cannot know what the future will actually be.

Here’s what LeGuin wrote:

“Write what you know” doesn’t mean you have to know a lot.  It just tells you to take what you have, take who you are, and use it.  Don’t try to use secondhand feeling: use yourself.  Stake your claim, however small it may seem, and dig your own gold mine…. Writing itself, writing fiction or poetry, is a learning device — a means of knowledge, self-knowledge, knowledge of life.”

She agrees with me!  Well, LeGuin wrote the article in first 1991, so I guess it’s probably the other way around.  Anyway, she goes on to talk about the imagination and truthfulness in writing.  She wrote:

If fiction is to be truthful about what human beings really are and do, we have to define knowledge as a goal of the imagination.

A goal not only of the conscious mind, but also of the imagination.  And she goes on to write that a writer’s job is to make what he or she writes true, i.e. to make it seem true as well as revealing the truth of it. 

I felt wonderful after I finished reading this article.  It’s so easy to lose track or to go off the rails, as it were, with my head buried in character arcs, plotting, structure and story, not to mention authentic-sounding dialogue.  Coming up for air and feeling like I’m doing everything wrong, that I haven’t written what I know, and questioning my commitment to writing ends with frustration and despair.  Standardization doesn’t exist in writing.  It’s not like being on an assembly line.  Self-doubt and uncertainty — if I ever get around to getting a couple cats, maybe they’d be good names for them! — are the viruses that infect my creativity at times. 

Here’s what I know and practice for anti-viral medication to fight self-doubt and uncertainty: deflection and containment.  They are bred by the self-censor and released when he feels neglected.  So, I deflect this kind of activity by giving the self-censor something to do, like copyediting something I’ve finished or a critical reading of a short story.  Deflecting the self-censor contains him for a while so that I can return to my no-holds-barred creativity and learning.

Instead of “write what you know,” how about “seek to write what you don’t know” and use yourself as the ideal student.  Rules are meant to guide not imprison….


2 responses to “What Does ‘Write What You Know’ Mean?

  1. Thanks for the good words for me and for The Writer(which I too think is the best of the how-to-write magazines), and for the very thoughtful prescription for “deflection and containment.” I think a lot of writers would find it useful. And I love “write what you don’t know”!

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