Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 12 Comments


I think my mother knows more than she’s telling…

Perhaps the most famous piece of writing advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit your day job” and “vampires are done.”

But should you?

One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version, not the now-he’s-a-brand version). Francis wrote horse-racing mysteries. Early in his career, they were all about horse-racing, and the skulduggery around the track: doping, blackmail, sabotage, family conflict. All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby. Francis knew that world. He’d been a jockey for many years, including riding for Queen Elizabeth II. But as his books became more popular, they also became more diverse. He still set every one in the world of racing in some way, but he added a layer. Racecourse catering (poison!), architecture and renovation (explosions!), glass-blowing (domestic abuse!). Reading his work was enjoyable not just to solve the mystery, but to learn about another new world.

As nonfiction writers, we usually write what we know. But writing what we want to know–what takes time and research to figure out–can be even more powerful. If we’re writing narrative nonfiction or longform journalism, writing what we want to know is kind of the point. But how can we apply this to memoir and personal essay?

By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

Imagine the you-protagonist is a character in a play. That character only knows what happens in their scenes. There’s a whole world of Hamlet happening behind Ophelia’s back–all she knows is that her boyfriend is acting really oddly this week.

For memoir and essay, this research involves taking our family, friends and antagonists seriously. Assuming there’s method behind their madness. Speculating–or asking–what’s happening when we’re offstage. Make some phone calls. Get snoopy.

Over at Lithub, Emily Temple has compiled quotes from many authors addressing “write what you know.” From Bret Anthony Johnston:

In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.

That’s why, as memoirists, we must seek out what we don’t know. We must give the reader a picture as complete as we can make, tell them something that matters to more than just ourselves.

Check out Should You Write What You Know? at Lithub.

 

______________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Tagged: , , ,

§ 12 Responses to Write What You (Want To) Know

  • Sometimes there is synchronicity—is that the word I want?—that stuns me. Just hours ago, while working with college students in the library on their research papers, we digressed. I urged my students to recognize the process of writing as an experience that provokes learning about ourselves and about our topic as we research and organize our understanding on the page. And at one point, apropos of nothing, we shared our personal experiences with animal-doping. “All the things that happen when a bunch of wealthy people get together for a competitive hobby.” Yes, that’s it.

  • Kimber says:

    Writing, for me, is an experience. I may start out writing what I know (or think I know) and end up learning something completely new about myself, a memory, truth, or even chocolate.

  • Reader Runner Writer says:

    Love this advice. As a reader, I always love hearing the story of how the antagonist “got the way they are”. As a non-fiction writer, it’s easy to become absorbed in what you know to be solid truth- personal experiences.

  • I love this concept, of removing ourselves from the equation. The sum may still not add up, life isn’t perfect, but it gives breadth to our understanding. For a coming-of-age memoir, all memoirs, really, this readily creates the narrative, from naiveté to sophistication.

  • Writing what we want to know is the best piece of writing advice that I have ever received. Enjoyed reading your article 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  • VictoriaJoDean says:

    I loved that aspect of Dick Francis’ writing…and it’s why I pick up his books to re-read them every now then…I learned so much about other things…as well as horse racing.

  • casaeshin says:

    Good advice to take in considerations.

  • […] via Write What You (Want To) Know […]

  • herheadache says:

    By assuming we are part of a larger story, and we’re only able to see our part.

    I love this and I try.

    I want to write about my father’s mother, not sure if it should be fictional or nonfictional. I don’t know much of her story and she is not around now for me to ask. A lot of historical research is involved.

    My own family have always been rather supportive, reading my writing, but my brother often says he prefers to read my fiction rather than the memoir I write because he knows most of that. Strange, the things we think we know and those we don’t, about other people in our own lives.

    Great post and topic.

  • I loved reading your article. It’s deep and insightful. Great piece of advice 👌🏽

  • Frank Wilson says:

    Well that was dumb of me. I forget to click on the link. Haste makes waste. I am trying to play catch-up today and need to remind myself to take things easy. What a week last week was. One of my step-grandsons acted up badly at school. One of my step-granddaughters broke her tibia. Debbie got a ghastly cold, which is hardly what she needed. Oh, well. Best, Frank

    On Thu, Feb 8, 2018 at 6:34 AM, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

    > Allison K Williams posted: ” Perhaps the most famous piece of writing > advice ever: “Write what you know.” A maxim right up there with “don’t quit > your day job” and “vampires are done.” But should you? One of my favorite > writers is Dick Francis (the when-he-was-alive version” >

  • […] Write What You (Want to) Know at Brevity.) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Write What You (Want To) Know at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

meta

%d bloggers like this: