To Write or Not to Write What You Know?

Write What You Know?

Authorities advise, “Write what you know.” I have struggled with this concept. To me, it means, “Write what you have lived” which seems to limit my possibilities. A human being’s experiences certainly build her memories, but do memories have the most direct impact on her writing?

Write What Interests You?

Writing teachers have said, “Write about what interests you.” In fact, as I wrote this statement down, I recalled my first experience with “research.” A junior high teacher asked us to write a research paper on a topic of personal interest. I chose to write on cats because I liked cats—my own was a sleek Siamese named Shan. The only other cats I knew belonged to my Aunt Blanche. Her barn cats who were essentially wild cats, quite different from my talkative, blue-eyed beauty. My first foray into research did teach me new information— geography, biology, and cat psychology. Importantly, I learned to use the Encyclopedia Britannica for “research,” instead of just reading it for fun. However, when I heard the other students’ presentations, I thought my own could have addressed a more exciting topic.

Does Writing What You Know Mean Writing About You?

Diverse genres approach “writing what you know” in different ways. Autobiographies represent “writing what you know,” at least writing what the authors remember, though they may embellish the truth. Biographies address writing what others might have known, thus, pundits tend to critique what the biographer adds. Although my book clubs’ lists contain many memoirs, I find them rather tedious with the exception of one that captured my full attention. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes what she knows. Her personal story is unique. Her style is intriguing. Her scientific knowledge is thorough. She successfully melds emotion with action based on knowledge. Despite the fact that it is a memoir, it reads like fiction. Nonetheless, writing an autobiography, biography, or memoir does not appeal to me. I want to write fiction.  Fiction’s creative potential is limitless.

Writing About a Setting You Know

As I have worked on my fiction over the years, I have played with topics with which I am quite familiar, with very personal subjects, yet also with topics of which I know little. As I have inched toward my goal of attempting to write a novel, I have realized that selecting a storyline that takes place in a familiar setting would be wise. Despite my interests in the arcane, focusing on surroundings that I know well would allow me to enhance my depiction of natural phenomena. Integrating history that reflects the decades I have lived through might help me embed verisimilitude. Regarding potential characters, I love the mix of personality types that I observe in Colorado. The quirky choices about existence evident around me could fill the pages of multiple novels. Perhaps, writing about the types of experiences and individuals I encounter would allow me to build more genuine characters as well.

Writing About the Kinds of People You Know

As a lifetime reader, I have learned how to live from fictional characters as well as from individuals around me. When I was a child, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Josephine March taught me to persevere. As an adult reader of French literature, I ached at the choices Phaedra and Iphigeneia had to make. As a member of a 35-year old feminist book club, I have read books by more than 400 women authors from around the world. While I share similarities with some of these heroines, the realities of our life situations have noteworthy differences.

Even so, certain types stand out in my mind and in my memory. Universal types such as women who achieve despite the challenges they face fascinate me. Men who are willing to enact nonviolent maleness attract my attention. Individuals who challenge themselves to pursue difficult, if sometimes foolish, activities fascinate me. Hence, the question I am mulling over at the moment is: “Do I write fiction about universal types or about specific individuals? Or are specific types in point of fact universal? Because reality provides much to choose from, writing about my environment will allow me to select and focus. However, with every day of writing, I continue to learn that even writing about what I know requires meticulous research. It is astounding how little I “know” about the life I have inhabited. The tiniest details require research to make sure that what I think I know is accurate.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For the last 31 days, I have focused on my writing and delved into many areas that I never dreamed I would need to research in depth.
  2. I completed 36 pages, exceeding my goal. I even gave myself a little gift—two days to work on another project that attracts me. It was reinvigorating to place my focus on another topic momentarily.
  3. I have begun to develop a network of kindred spirits. Several creative friends have asked me to share my goal setting handout with them. Others have given me excellent feedback. I also shared my goals with a local writers group. Their questions and comments were motivating.

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