by L.X. Beckett
One of the things you will often hear in fiction-writing is the aphorism write what you know.
There’s more than one meaning packed into this phrase, and which of them matters in any given conversation can vary, depending on who you are talking to and the context in which the idea arises.
One underlying concept is easy enough to see: it’s kind of cautionary. Your work may lack authority—an ability to convince the reader that what you’re saying is true and worth considering—if your audience can sense that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Readers can be pretty decent BS detectors, and we tune out quickly when we sense someone is having us on.
As such, if I want to write a super facty article about a particle accelerator, and I refer to this technology as the big bendy straw of the rock star physics toolkit—if you know me, this isn’t unlikely—I’d probably need, at the very least, to give up on selling the piece to Scientific American and take my shtick somewhere funnier.
Some people take write what you know to refer to lived experience. This is the idea that you can only truly write about something you’ve been through directly. This can be seen as the literary equivalent of method acting. It’s the proposition that you can only write authentically about steelworkers, for example, if you go and put in a year punching a timecard in a foundry.
This latter kind of knowing is flatly impossible, unless you want to populate your entire literary output with characters who are carbon copies of yourself. There are ways to tell the stories of people different from you respectfully; it’s work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s doable.
Writing what you know can include writing what you know because you looked it up. It can include spending a year in a foundry, if that’s your research process. It can include interviewing a dozen veteran steelworkers instead, or watching footage from inside their factory, assuming such footage exists.
Is the aphorism meaningless, then? No.
To me, the most important idea captured within write what you know becomes most important because it addresses the artist’s goal in creating work in the first place: the aspiration to communicate a fundamental truth about your subject matter.
This sounds lofty, but don’t let it intimidate you.
It appeals to common sense to assert that it’s easier to touch on meaningful truths, as a writer, when you’re discussing a subject you understand. Where knowledge brings authority. But knowledge alone isn’t enough.
This brings us to the second part of this essay title: What do you love? Or, more properly, what are you passionate about?
Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of nonfictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.
Oh, now, I know what you’re probably thinking. We’ve debased the idea of passion a little in recent years. If you’ve had a job interview in the past decade, you’ve probably been obliged to say you were passionate about helping consumers find the right experience, or achieving for your clients’ optimization a satisfying user interface . . . but we’re not talking about the idea of bandying about passion as a buzzword for potential employers. We’re talking about the subjects that truly matter to you, the things that feel as though they are in your veins and marrow. The topics that you can’t help bringing up and going on and on about.
Each and every one of you knows a shocking amount about things that aren’t necessarily near or dear to your heart. You know how to install an app on your phone, probably, and you know how to pay your taxes; you have expertise in driving cars or evaluating the quality of a given work of televised entertainment . . . but truth and facts are, weirdly, not the same thing, at least not all the time.
Here’s an example of the slipperiness of truth: think about a wedding whose hypothetical bride has achieved that oft-quoted goal. They have organized a ceremony so perfect that The Big Day truly is the happiest day of their life. Then imagine that—despite pulling off an incredibly wonderful event and having a truly remarkable day—this same person has entered an actual marriage that is a massive personal disaster, just waiting to play itself out in the fullness of time.
Contrast that bride with someone with immense experience and knowledge of how weddings work and why they derail. Say they’re writing a story, trying to pull the truth out of that underlying contradiction. Was it a good wedding if it was the symbolic beginning of a devastating romantic failure? Can the happiest day of someone’s life be undermined, retroactively, if the future it heralded doesn’t bear out the promises made at the altar?
Imagine the way that disappointed bride might write about this. Imagine the same topic tackled by a behavioral scientist, with years of research into how people form regrets. Imagine the poem written by the wedding planner. The rap song penned by the maid of honor. Each of these perspectives would contain its own possibility of Truth.
Human nature is quicksilver, and truth can be slippery. Ultimately, your verdict on “good wedding, bad marriage” is going to come down to how you feel. Some of that will be shaped by your temperament, and some by your past. But an insightfully written work of literature can also speak to the common human experiences of weddings and breakups, the shaping of those feelings . . . and that truth will be most likely to emerge if the author has an emotional stake in the answer.
The subjects that engross us, command our attention, beguile us into daydream, lead us into self-examination, the topics that bring us joy or take us out of ourselves . . . these are different for each and every person. Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of non-fictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.
Periodically when I teach story-writing, at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and elsewhere, I encounter a student who is very new to fiction-writing and struggling to shape their ideas. These folks sometimes create a main character for a story who is only quite a bit like themselves. Not only do they share a temperament, but the protagonist and the writer share a day job. So they open their piece by essentially taking us to work, that most familiar of environments, and subconsciously attempt to involve the reader in the drama that makes up their nine to five existence: fights with supervisors and weird bureaucratic details.
These beginner writers are writing about something they know . . . but are they passionate about it? Speaking very generally, it’s quite often the case that a person takes a writing class when they’re not feeling complete emotional fulfillment at their day jobs.
I’m not saying everyone hates their job, or that everyone’s bored by their work. When someone is able to passionately articulate what is cool about a pursuit of theirs, whether it’s paid work or a volunteer or hobby pursuit, we are riveted. This is why so many people find TED talks compelling. And, indirectly, it’s why my novelette “The Hazmat Sisters” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!] has complicated fighty sisters, a bit of D&D, tree-planting drone platforms, all the things I find awful about camping, that baseball bat full of spikes—which I will never stop thinking about, shudders and all—and the taste of canned spaghetti in it.
So, the next time you are chasing truth in fiction, that’s where I recommend making a start: think about your favorite thing, and what it means to you. Home in on what you love, and then figure out what you know.