Write What You Don’t Know

Photo by Ken Cheung

Of all the aphoristic rules out there for writing, perhaps none is more common than the banal adage to “write what you know.” It’s my belief that this phrase, while well intentioned, is ultimately misleading advice.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea has some truth to it. For the beginning writer especially, it’s a huge step to complete a draft of anything, so you may as well make it easy on yourself and start with a subject you know well. Given enough practice and familiarity with the craft however, you should abandon this practice as quickly as you can.

Why? For one, “write what you know” establishes a misnomer that it’s the point of fiction to transcribe “real life” events. It isn’t. For better or worse, real life doesn’t work with the narrative neatness of fiction. Fiction operates from a platform of convenience, a well-calculated quasi-reality masquerading itself as the real thing. “Real” people rarely exemplify the on-the-nose qualities we find in fictional characters; they seldom can be whittled down to a single pursuit or desire; they don’t live with both the drive and thematic peculiarities that shape a compelling character. People also rarely live to witness the redemptive finales that are so common in stories. And real people are rarely as interesting. Let’s face it: most of us are a sort of confused piebald of wholesale characteristics, half-baked accomplishments, boring habits, repetitive motions and vanilla sameness. The fact is, if the “real world” were made into a novel or film, it’d be the worst story ever told.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students in workshops defend a scene or bit of dialogue with some variation of the phrase: “But that’s how it actually happened!” Fiction writers shouldn’t find themselves “married” to their stories. If anything, it robs your story of potential; writing only “what you know” limits your world to an orbit that never gets beyond arm’s reach. Moreover, if something just doesn’t “work” in a story, that isn’t to say it didn’t happen in the real world (the opposite is true: just because something happened doesn’t mean it’d make a great story). The “real world” and the world of fiction are two vastly different ontologies, and confusing one with the other can prove disastrous on narrative form. These are just a few reasons why writers should maintain a critical distance between themselves and their characters, between their experiences and the story they’re creating.

The fact is, if the “real world” were made into a novel or film, it’d be the worst story ever told.

Here’s another. Events in a story should be linked by symbolism and theme. Too often in the semi-biographical story however, this notion is skipped altogether and replaced with simple cause and effect. Thus, the reader isn’t subjected to an unexpected unfolding as much as we’re simply watching the inevitable being carried out. For structural reasons alone, works of fiction that identically mirror a personal experience should be examined with a wary eye.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t write about your own experiences. On the contrary: I encourage writers to take inspiration freely from their lives. But inspiration is the operative word. Your experiences can be a springboard upon which you launch your story; you can use your lifetime of experiences as a compost to grow and nourish your imaginative faculties. Your experiences should inspire, but once they begin creating the outlines for your stories I think you’ll discover they’re boxing them in as well.

So, where to start? If your story presents a character that mirrors you or someone you know, make sure that person serves a purpose outside of your own subjective indulgences: that he/she exists to reiterate or react to the theme of the story you’ve established. Remember what we said about most people being boring. You’re going to have to add a lot of characteristics — and no doubt remove a few too — to make that person palatable within the cog-work of alignments and frictions that exist in the story. Likewise, if your story is based on an actual event that occurred, make sure each scene advances both the story and the reader’s understanding of its characters. More than anything, I think you’ll find the most applicable components you can take from “what you know” aren’t exact replicas of people or full accounts of things that happened, but the ways in which ordinary people behaved in strange situations, or the strange ways in which people reacted to otherwise ordinary situations. Transposing those golden moments — an odd bit of dialogue, an unexpected response — into a different context can do wonders for building character and advancing a story. Write on the edge of your experiences. Let them serve as building blocks upon which you lay the foundation for new experiences. Having a mind stocked with experience certainly doesn’t hurt, but remember to aim for the larger goal at hand: to use your experiences not as means of depicting the real world, but to reveal its own world, one that exists for its own sake. I won’t lie to you: it’s hard. You’re creating something out of absolutely nothing, after all. It takes a lot of time — and lot of wrestling — to get these worlds to take shape.

This means you have to learn to take chances. Writing is a crapshoot; you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. That’s both the beauty and tragedy of it. Either way, being critical of your work is paramount. Learn how to let go. After a while, “killing your darlings” becomes less gut wrenching and actually becomes somewhat of a liberating feeling. If you aren’t willing to change something that vastly improves your story simply because the event actually occurred, there’s a problem. At the least you’d need a primer on what separates fiction from a memoir. At the worst I’d advise you to pick a different vocation, like journalism.

Consider this paradox: Journalism and biographies, which purport to describe real, historic events, are at their most successful when they bring to light something we don’t know about a commonly known subject. In other words, they abstract the specific. Fiction, on the other hand — which takes its stock in imaginary worlds with imaginary characters and imaginary dialogues between them — uses the abstract in an attempt to shine light on some specific, grand mystery about the human experience. Whether you like it or not, fiction holds a higher expectation. So don’t write what happened. Write what you feel needs to be written.

There’s nothing wrong with starting a story from a place you know well, but where you take us should be far beyond your experiences and ultimately, to a place where few of us have been. Writing is a means of going outside yourself, of reaching other minds. Think about the things we all hunger for — a different kind of experience, an enlightened understanding, an answer. You might start a story with where you’ve been, but hopefully it rises to become something greater: where you haven’t.

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 24, 2012 - 9:48am

awesome article Jon - I appreciate addressing the old go-to in such a thoughtful and encouraging manner.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon January 24, 2012 - 10:09am

I’ve always interpreted the “write what you know” mantra to mean more that you shouldn’t be writing about things you have no experience with, such as writing about life as an ambulance driver if you know absolutely nothing about driving an ambulance. In other words: don’t pull shit out of your ass. To that, it isn’t even that you shouldn’t write about driving an ambulance if you’ve never done so, but that you should take the time to learn about driving an ambulance before writing about it. What this article seems to be addressing however, is the compatibility between reality and fiction, which I’ve always thought of as a separate issue.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 24, 2012 - 11:22am

@zach - more about the difference between being true to life vs true of life - as far as I know reality is still being debated in pretty much every discipline.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 24, 2012 - 12:23pm

Great article.  I've always called it 'write what you almost know'.  Because, along with the points above, there are so many stories that get generated when doing research about something you're interested in but don't know that much about.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon January 24, 2012 - 1:10pm

@zach - more about the difference between being true to life vs true of life - as far as I know reality is still being debated in pretty much every discipline.

Ha! You're absolutely right.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 26, 2012 - 10:57am

"Write what you know" vs. "An artist's reach should extend his grasp". . . good points.

BelleAngel's picture
BelleAngel from Kingston, Jamaica is reading Audition & Book It! January 31, 2012 - 6:16pm

Thank you Jon Gingerih for your education on "Write What You Don't Know"

Teri's picture
Teri March 30, 2012 - 8:01am

Great article. Visceral experience is important but there are some things most of us are just never going to be able to do, like, travel to the moon, for example. First hand knowledge will only get a writer so far. Imagination is the key.

matches_malone's picture
matches_malone is reading Steppenwolf December 17, 2012 - 10:23am

I always grapple with this subject when it comes to writing about real locations. That, more than anything else, I feel, is important to get right. If you're writing about a place you've never been before, and that place (as often is the case) is somebody's hometown they've lived in all their life, woe betide you if you get the colour of the cobblestones wrong.

And a lot of times I feel research — movies, books, wikipedia, google maps, etc. — just isn't enough sometimes. If I've never been to California, how can I write about California? I can write my impression of it, but people who have lived or been there will be far better at capturing its essence than I would.

It's frustrating, to say the least.