Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On the Advice to, "Write What you Know."

by Deren Hansen

Doubtless you've heard the advice to, "Write what you know." It's at least as old as L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, in which the precocious red-head publishes a story about Avonlea after all her high-minded romances have been rejected.

"But," you object, "we wouldn't have hobbits and Narnia if we only wrote what we know."

That might be true, if you take the advice literally.

Like the gossip game, where players relay whispered messages and then laugh at the garbled version that comes out of the end of the chain, I suspect we've received only a degenerate version of the advice.

We should say, "Write what you know, not what you think you know."

L. M. Montgomery's Anne thought she knew the style in which she should write. Contemporary writers often think they should write in a particular genre (sparkly vampires) or to a particular audience (YA) because they know those are hot.

Distinguishing between what you know and what you think you know is often difficult because most of what we know is actually what we think we know.

Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that writing what you know isn't about the facts and information at your command, or even about your experiences. Writing what you know is fundamentally about what you understand.

The advice to "write what you know" should also be understood as advice to, "Write what you love." Sometimes your heart knows what you know better than your reason.

That's why, if you love a world no one else has seen yet, you can honestly say you're writing what you know.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.


Julie Daines said...

When I read this, the first thing that came to my mind was a bit of dialogue from the movie Mystery Men:

Captain Amazing: I knew you couldn't change.

Casanova: I knew you'd know that.

Captain Amazing: Oh, I know. And I knew you'd know I'd know you knew.

Casanova: But I didn't. I only knew that you'd know that I knew. Did you know that?

Deren Hansen said...

I knew you'd say that ...


Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

It's very ironic that I just read a post by a newly published author on this very subject. I think if we took this advice literally, we would never get anywhere past our own autobiographies. And that wouldn't be very interesting in most cases. =)

ps. It's nice to find more writers in Utah!

Genevieve said...

Great post. So true. So important! So obvious, but so not, sometimes.

Scott said...

It's fun to learn the new stuff you want to write about. And really, as anyone who writes historical fiction can tell you, although it helps to learn as much as you can, you really only have to learn enough to look like you know more, and enough to not make obvious mistakes.