The Therapeutic Value of “Writing What You Know”

by Zack Be

Zack Be has extensive experience playing gig after gig as a touring musician, and his latest story is inspired by all of the road-weary bands, singers, and performers who must eventually ask themselves: Will we ever make it big? Read “Meryl’s Cocoon” in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

If you travel in creative writing circles you’ll constantly hear the phrase “write what you know.” It’s said both ironically and unironically, with either derision or approval (but almost always certainty) as authors wrestle with the scope of what topics they think they can write about with any sense of verisimilitude. I shudder to think that in this very blog post, in its very first sentence, I’ve fallen prey to dragging out that dusty old creative writing class discussion yet again. Still, I can’t escape the fact that writing “Meryl’s Cocoon”—which appears in Asimov’s May/June 2022 issue—involved me intensively “writing what I know,” and by extension, helped me to gain a deeper understanding of “what I know” by forcing me to process it on the page.

The story centers on a pair of musicians barely surviving as they navigate the rigorous touring schedule of their small-time band. As a small-time gigging musician myself with a background in running DIY house shows out of my garage, I’ve played, toured, hosted, and attended countless shows just like the ones Nia and Brit play and/or reminisce about in the story. Just like Nia and Brit, I’ve seen the world around my music scene change over the years; or at least, I’ve felt the scene change, perhaps as a function of my own aging and the jadedness that comes with it. 

Change is inevitable—people come and go from the music scene, as do trends, venues, platforms, and one’s own stomach for the labor of staying involved. However, no matter how the ornamentation melts and reforms, there remains a subcutaneous energy that drives the operation forward, stalwart as ever, desperately pushing people to make something meaningful out of nothing (that’s the DIY spirit, after all). But most can’t live on that energy alone. As much as this story is about the love of the scene and the spirit that oils its gears, it’s also about growing up and, with great effort, recognizing the right time to let go. 

These days, I spend the bulk of my time toiling in the PhD mines and working as a psychotherapist. But does that mean I’m giving up on my music? Not so fast. 

“Meryl’s Cocoon” is a sort of love letter to all my musician friends around the world and especially those in the Washington D.C. area who continue to climb the mountain. I hope every musician who reads “Meryl’s Cocoon” sees a bit of their story in Nia and Brit. Back-breaking load-ins before shows, empty crowds, hype-beast bands trying to network after your set, back-breaking load-outs after shows, long rides in the van between venues that decouple you from reality and generate existential malaise—it’s all here, folks, plus SFnal robots. It just so happens that trying to capture the truth of these moments also means being upfront about the self-doubt musicians experience as they become increasingly self-aware of the potential limits of their lifestyle. As Nia finds out, sometimes it is the right time to pivot, and detailing this piece of the story became a much more intensive process of “writing what I know” than I initially intended. In order to make the story honest for the reader, I needed to be honest with myself about what music means to me, and connect with the part of myself that has lost faith in the music life as I matured. 

The raw material to be this honest was present, but from a writing craft perspective, my closeness to the characters of “Meryl’s Cocoon” also left me snowblind at times while I tried to “write what I know.” This is one of those stories that jostled around in the back of my head for years before I actually sat down to start drafting, in part because I did not know where to begin. Some of my creative writing mentors are probably groaning as they read this, cracking their knuckles over their keyboards as they prepare to tell me in the comments that this was a completely unnecessary period of gestation. And guess what? They are probably right, but there were many times before I started writing that I felt truly overwhelmed by my proximity to these experiences and the desire to do them justice. Much like the bedroom music producer who can never seem to stop tinkering and release his long-delayed cloud rap album, “Meryl’s Cocoon” inadvertently became a story I was telling myself for years before I sent it off to Asimov’s.

I did not expect my attempts to do these feelings justice on the page would expand my understanding of those feelings within myself. We often think of “write what you know” as a maxim for writers to follow for the purpose of improving the reader’s experience. If you write what you know, then the authenticity will flow. From there, authors like to argue about whether or not they can write a convincing firefighter character without having been one themselves. 

It just so happens that trying to capture the truth of these moments also means being upfront about the self-doubt musicians experience as they become increasingly self-aware of the potential limits of their lifestyle.

At a deeper level, however, it seems that “write what you know” provides an author with the opportunity to process their world and their experiences. Putting words on the page, one after another in a long unbroken linear string, forces us to take the chaotic cloud of abstract thoughts and feelings that floats above our heads all day, squeeze it down, and reformat it piece by piece into a coherent explanation of our inner worlds.

Now you might be thinking, “this process sounds eerily similar to therapy.” Well, it is! But in the realm of fiction—and especially speculative fiction—this process is uniquely different from journaling, a classic psychotherapy tool. Fiction writing can be completely untethered from reality in the way it allows us to play with the parts of ourselves we bring to it far beyond the frame of a personal journal. 

Here’s an SAT analogy: “Writing what you know” is to play therapy as journaling is to talk therapy. Both kids and adults “play,” writing fiction is a form of “play,” and any form of play can be play therapy. Playing frees us to engage with ideas in ways we never thought possible, and by extension, see new parts of ourselves. Just like a child’s pretend play as a fireman may help them to understand what a fireman is, so too does an author’s depiction of vengeful mistresses in the Royal Martian Court offer that author an opportunity to wrestle with their own understanding of vengeance (and infidelity?) in their lives. “Write what you know” is not a boundary within which authors must write, but instead it is an invitation to authors to draw what we know up into the boundless expanses of our imagination and process it via play.

I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life going to, playing, and hosting shows in my local music community, as well as producing music. The scene can be transcendent, beautiful, joyless, and unforgiving, scraping all the highs and lows of the creative experience in a single night, if not over the course of a single set, or even a song. “Writing what I know” about this experience, and the experience of music itself, has helped me to understand this corner of my life in a way that was previously inaccessible. Raising it into the realm of fantasy offered me the unique opportunity to see it from new sides and add new dimensions to my sense of self. Whether your story takes place on Titan, or in a pocket dimension full of space whales, or right here on Earth on tour with a rock band trying to survive the impending machine singularity, there is an opportunity for any author to process a part of themselves through prose. “Write what you know” may be a dusty chestnut indeed, but its endless regurgitation speaks to a deeper value many of us ignore. 

Getting to tell these stories in “Meryl’s Cocoon” was a treat, and for what it’s worth, I hope my musician friends continue to live this life and make the best music hiding under the average listener’s nose for as long as they can (see some local DC suggestions at the bottom).  

Some artists you might not know:

Color Palette –

Lightmare –

The North Country –

Spring Silver –

Darryl Rahn –

Oh He Dead –

Near Northeast –

Garrett Gleason –

Pretty Bitter –

Zack Be is an author, musician, and family and couples therapist who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. His work has previously appeared in Asimov’s, and has won the Writers of the Future story contest.

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