I wanted to quickly unpack this piece of writing advice: “Write what you know“.
I’ve heard it so many times before and I used to think, “Well, that’s stupid. I’m writing a fantasy, and so I can’t write what I know. I’ve never been to a fantasy world or fought in wars!”
Oh, Siana, how wrong you were.
This statement, this advice, shouldn’t be taken so literally. It doesn’t mean write the plot that you know. Like something you’ve done. It means that you should write from a personal place…
Write what you’ve been through. So, whether that’s lost love, failed ventures, or poverty, you can put these into any kind of story. And it doesn’t need to be negatives or struggles, either. It can be education, travel, reinventing yourself, or daring to chase a dream. Whatever!
What you have experienced is personal and important. It means that you will be able to write this story with real authenticity because you’ve felt it firsthand. This will enrich the narrative and really hit home for the reader. The plot or setting or genre doesn’t matter, but personal experience is something you should draw from.
Put real feelings and emotion into the story. Write about how you’ve felt. How it felt to be rejected; how it felt to lose your father. Use the deep emotional experiences you’ve had; tap into them and put them on the page. It will bring your story to life.
In Monsters Inc. the plot may be about Sully and Mike hiding a human child who jeopardises their world. But in reality, the essence of the story is about a man becoming a father figure and choosing to put the child first. One of the writers even said that he was becoming a dad at the time and so he put that experience and those emotions into the story. The fantastical plot is beside the point.
We all go through challenges in our lives. Be that in love, finances, friendships, education, careers, or other. Thinking about how it felt to face those trials, what you did, and the results can help you to write a story with depth. It’s emotion and experience matched with character building (you being the character in this scenario).
When I finally thought about my personal narrative, I realised that I had a good story inside of me to tell. Not the whole “British girl wanna-be writer” story, but the story of one’s search for identity, belonging and meaning. These are now at the heart of my current work.
As an introvert surrounded by extroverts, I’ve often felt out of place. As someone with Social Anxiety, I’ve always struggled to form real relationships. As a writer, I spend time in solitude wearing the skins of many characters, meaning I lack connection to the outside world at times and struggle with my own identity.
And so, this is my story to tell. This is how I write what I know.
All the pain, the struggles, the ups and downs, the misunderstandings, the connections, the frustrations, self-doubt, fear…all of it just comes together to form a narrative. My story.
Now I could have chosen to write this story of identity and belonging in any world, location, or genre. Many people have done before. But by tapping into the real story I want and need to tell, and writing what I know, my story has real substance, emotion, and drive unlike any I’ve written before.
So, if you are a beginner, or like me you took this advice the wrong way, then I hope I’ve helped you look at it a little differently. Because I now believe that yes, we should aim to write what we know.