You’ve heard the advice to “write what you know,” right? It sounds kind of wise and deep. Profound, even. And beginning writers scramble their brains trying to figure out what they know and how to write it. I know I did.
Sometimes the conclusion is “I don’t know anything,” and you give up after a few attempts to write the Great American Novel. Or maybe you think what you know is the end-all and be-all, but you land in the same place anyway. And all too often, it’s a brutal childhood, a sexual assault, or a marriage-gone-wrong that new writers think they should turn into a story. But it’s not that easy.
Here’s the thing. “Write what you know” is misleading, at best.
Many new writers think it means some sort of outrageous experience that few others have had. Something truly original. And it follows that you have the solution to all that ails humanity, or your novel should enlighten readers around the world. So you start and stop countless times and finally quit, thinking writing just isn’t for you.
At worst, some think they should write, in chronological order, everything that happened during this or that struggle or event. They might plot out the details of some great loss or act of courage and try to create a story from it. Or they describe how they almost lost their life or their child or their dog. And that alone will be the makings of a great piece of writing. Fictionalized, of course. Or maybe written as a memoir.
Um, no. Probably not. In fact, personal experience doesn’t often make the best story. Not if you don’t know a whole lot of other stuff (more on that in a sec).
So toss that bit about “write what you know.” Instead, write your truth.
What’s the difference between write what you know and write your truth?
Writing what you know suggests you have specific facts, knowledge, or experiences tucked away somewhere. Some writers do, of course. Think Cheryl Strayed and her memoir Wild.
When you write your truth, on the other hand, you go a lot deeper.
How do you write your truth?
What do you believe? What, on a broad level, has your experience been as a human being in your community or country? What universal struggle have you experienced or witnessed? And what is your response, your gut reaction, your belief concerning your experiences?
You might believe that
- marriage and family is the purpose of life
- good always conquers bad
- power is just an illusion
- the soul is immortal
- injustice is inevitable
- injustice should be fought
- love equals sacrifice
- death and loss equals suffering
- the ultimate victory is overcoming fear
- overcoming an oppressor is the ultimate victory
- motherhood is the ultimate sacrifice or life’s work
- fatherhood is the most important role in a man’s life
- war will always be necessary and has its glories
- war is a horrific, awful thing that must be done away with
One of my truths focuses on the importance of the individual: individual growth, development, survival, relief from suffering, and satisfaction or happiness. Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I also think a lot about the individual’s capacity to overcome obstacles and conflict and find their unique strengths, power, and peace, even against all odds. And if individuals aren’t relatively content, for the most part, a community or nation won’t be at peace.
And those truths—my truths that come from my own experiences, observations, or learning—form the main themes of my writing, at least up to this point. They’re common themes, and they can be used in fiction or memoir. Cheryl Strayed certainly wrote her truth and focused on the individual’s struggles—her own struggles—in Wild.
What about well-known authors?
- What truths does JK Rowling set forth in the Harry Potter series?
- What about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and The Host?
- Stephen King?
- Gillian Flynn? (Gone Girl)
- Nicholas Sparks?
- Paula Hawkins? (The Girl on the Train)
- Anne Rice?
Look up your favorite authors and figure out what their themes and truths are. And think about it. What are yours? How can you write your truth?
Can you write something with a theme that goes against your own truth?
Writing a short story or novel with a theme that opposes your truth can be difficult. It can be done, though, with some planning and forethought. But you won’t be able to embrace a truth that’s not your own, even if you write from that vantage point, unless you change your mind about it.
Let’s say one of your truths revolves around the joys of motherhood or fatherhood, for example. You could write a story about a woman who pays little attention to childbearing or starting a family (unlike you), and she regrets it when diagnosed with uterine cancer in her late 30s. She has a complete hysterectomy, and she’s cured.
Now what, according to your truth? Maybe she decides to adopt, whether as a single woman or married, and everyone lives happily ever after. That’s just one way to write your truth without exactly writing what you know or what you’ve experienced personally. Research might be involved, but that’s part of a writer’s job anyway.
Personal experience can help. But it can also hinder.
Personal experience can get in the way of clear thinking, especially when emotions are still strong or unresolved. So writing what you know can be challenging even for experienced writers. What to leave in, what to leave out, how can I present this and maintain my dignity, what will people think, what will my family/kids/spouse/friends think …
You can write what you know, sure. Write everything that ever happened to you or things you did, good or bad, and it’s a story. But will anyone want to read it?
Or you can write your truths—and we all have many—in any number of ways, over and over again no matter who the characters are, what the plot is, or where the story takes place. And maybe, when you’re completely familiar with all your truths, you can write what you know and do it well.
Comments and questions are always welcome!