Write What You (Want To) Know

February 8, 2018 § 14 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.

Best of the Web 2009: Dzanc You!

July 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Brevity had the great good fortune to publish Kate Petersen’s To All Those Who Say Write What You Know in our May 2008 issue, and now that essay has been reprinted in the great, good, growlin’ Best of the Web 2009 ** from the fine folks at Dzanc Books.

So here’s our shout out to Dzanc — everyone who loves web literature should order that book right now — and our ongoing appreciation to Kate Petersen, who blogs about her essay here:

When I began this piece, my river was the Avon, the part that wends through Bath on its way to the river Severn, and now it’s the Charles. (Neither of them made the list). I have known a river of two, whatever that meant, but it came first.

I like lists, a lot, so in one way, this piece was an easy exercise: Write a list of what you know. Lists within lists. Items gave way to memory which gave way to more items.

But in another way it was really hard. No matter what the proponents of write-what-you-know say, as writers of fiction, we claim for ourselves and our characters knowledge that surpasses our own. But in nonfiction, we can’t (or aren’t supposed to). I couldn’t create a scene, a landscape or experience I hadn’t had. Some of my characters have known war, but I haven’t, and so in a way, the essay became about windows – the unwatched TV, cruising altitude flying coach. How much I’ve seen and facing what direction has been, more often than not, accidental.

To that end, I suppose I was challenging those who say write what you know: Here it is. Two pages. A horse in a field. Some rivers. That’s what I can have? Which may also be a bit like a confession. Everything I know fits into less than 750 words, after editing, and when I read it now, I hear the unasked question, Is this enough?

But maybe it’s not a challenge or a confession. Perhaps I was just trying to write down the want — that gap between what we know (and therefore have), and all the rest of it, where the desire gets in.

** Also in Best of the Web 2009, Brevity essays by Terese Svoboda and Kathrine Leone Wright

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