Like ‘Show, don’t tell’ (a hypocritically telling phrase in itself), the ‘Write What You Know’ mantra is often thrown around with no explanation.
So what does it mean? Does it mean you can only write about your own experiences? Does it mean your story should be an autobiography? Does it mean you can’t have a female narrator if you’re a male writer?
Nope. ‘Write What You Know’ isn’t about limitations. It’s not there to stop you writing cool stuff. It’s there to make your writing more realistic. Because ‘Write What You Know’ really means: ‘Write What You’ve Felt.’
‘Write What You Know’ is not necessarily about using your experiences as the basis for your story. Sure, if you’ve broken your leg, been in a car chase or stolen treasure from a dragon who likes to riddle, go ahead and use your memories. But if you’ve never broken a bone, pursued a stolen vehicle or snagged loot from a dragon’s lair, don’t worry, because you can still have these scenes in your story! What’s more, you can make these scenes resonate with readers not by drawing on your experiences (as implied by ‘Write What You Know’) but by drawing on your emotions (as implied by ‘Write What You’ve Felt’).
For instance, you might have never broken a bone, but you’ve probably been housebound by flu and experienced the same frustration at being reliant on others and unable to move. You might’ve never been in a car chase, but you can probably remember the stress of your driving test. You might’ve never tried to out-riddle a dragon, but you’ve probably had a brain-straining exam where you’ve been terrified of failing.
‘Write What You Know’ is about adding realism to your work. It’s not about using things you’ve done. It’s about using things you’ve felt. It’s about drawing on strong emotions you’ve had and using them to make your story emotionally resonant. To quote Maya Angelou: “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What are your thoughts on ‘Write What You Know?’ Is it important or even necessary? Do you agree with my interpretation or do you think this phrase means something else?