You Know What? Don’t Write What You Know

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times; we’ve had it fed to us for years. It’s what any creative writer who’s never written a story in his life says. Anyone who has never had an original or otherwise worthwhile thought on the art of writing has probably said it.

“Write what you know”—what idiot came up with that?

A Brief History of the Phrase

Like most aphorisms, it’s difficult to trace it to its source. Some credit it to Twain, some to Hemingway; certainly it has an established history at least that far back. One of the oldest, and best, quotes I came across was written by Howard Nemerov (1920-1991):

“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”

On Answerbag I came across a helpful person who posted a handy reference here citing several articles and authors on the adage.

You’ll notice that all the authors quoted there, and most if not all of the authors you’ll be able to find who have said anything about the adage, were active past the second half of the 19th century. Probably because up until that point in history, writers were generally smart enough to avoid trying to tell anyone how to write. Twain was a notable exception, which lends another shade of plausibility to the theory that he coined the phrase.

The Misunderstanding

Wherever it started, this platitude has been so long seized upon misconstrued by the laity, so long twisted and abused, that’s it’s true meaning is unrecognizable, buried deep in a confusion of idle misrepresentation and ignorant reinterpretation. It’s nothing now but a sad mockery of the truth.

I speak harshly; it’s not that I deny anyone their right to their opinion if they believe in this phrase in its modern meaning, but call it a pet peeve, I don’t like seeing a misunderstood “truism” forced down artists’ throats.

The Truth

Want the truth? The point the phrase is really trying to get across is, “Write what you feel.” It’s not a reprimand for writing what you’ve never seen, not a command to write about the places you’ve been or the things you’ve done, not a criticism or a rule, but a simple truth. That’s what writing is all about. Writing is a channeling of what you feel. It’s about the emotions. Anything you don’t know you can learn–but emotion can’t be taught. You have to feel it to write it. That’s the point.

In the common sense, that you must literally have knowledge of whatever you write about, I prefer to phrase it “Know what you write.” If you want to write about something you don’t know, because it’s a fitting representation of what you feel–then you research and you learn.

But the best advice I can offer you is this: ignore adages on the art of writing. As you can see, they hardly ever give you the whole story. It goes against the very art. Find your own understanding of the art, form your own opinions, and write your own rules.

Writing isn’t something you should let anyone teach you but yourself. Accept suggestions—advice—anything but rules. That’s the beauty of writing. There are no rules.

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