Write what you know.
It’s the oldest cliché in the book on writing. But is it necessary for great writing?
That depends on who you ask.
Mark Twain is credited for this sage advice, but Toni Morrison shuts that shit down.
“People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.” – Toni Morrison
If you take this mantra literally, it’s limiting. For one thing, what, exactly, do you know enough about to write an entire book. And what if, like Morrison says, you know nothing?
But facts aren’t everything. You may believe you’re no expert in any area. But you’re wrong.
Everyone has their niche of knowledge. Everyone can teach others, teacher or not. We all have something to share, whether it’s how to do something, the fictional worlds in which we live, or real-life experiences we’ve had that others can learn from. All of this is knowledge.
Human beings are natural story-tellers, and channeling your knowledge into your story will make the ink flow from your pen with ease. Right now, for instance, my fingers are flying across the keyboard, because I’m writing about something I’ve spent my whole life doing: WRITING.
Discovering what knowledge you may have hidden in your brain’s back alleys and what experiences you should incorporate into your writing is the first step. How to make this knowledge and experience compelling will follow (it will also be discussed in a later post.
For now, here are five steps to discovering and capitalizing on your knowledge.
Figuring Out What You Know in 5 Steps
1) Brainstorm Your Broad Knowledge
I’m a list person. I like to organize my thoughts and ideas visually. I also have a terrible memory, so words on paper remind me of the brainstorms I’ve already weathered and help me to conjure up new hurricanes.
So Step #1 to finding your knowledge is to make a list of those things that you know you know.
This list should consist of general knowledge – the things you’re interested in and are sure about. As I did in my first post on this blog, after giving my comfortable knowledge some consideration, I decided I know how to write and how to travel. Once you have the broad strokes, you can color in the detail.
2) Find Specific Knowledge Niches
Knowledge is never too big or too small.
Pull out your narrow brush now and paint in the detail. The narrower the niche of knowledge, the better.
For instance, if you’re a bagger at a grocery store, you know how to fill bags so that things don’t break or crack. You know which products go together and which you should keep separate. Believe it or not, this is knowledge.
If you’re a hospital CEO, you know how to deal with people. You know different trends in conflict resolution, and you know various personality types and how to manage them. You know the day-to-day operations of your job – the cogs in the machine that make the trains run on time.
If you’re a writer, you know your style. You have a feel for what works and what doesn’t. You probably have a polishing process when you edit. And you know that you can always improve your writing by reading other’s writing and advice.
These specific scraps of knowledge often go by the wayside. They come so naturally to us, that we take them for granted. But, no, not everyone knows what the job of a bagger, a CEO, or a writer entails. This will come in handy when you want to bring your writing, knowledge, and experiences to life.
3) Go Obscure
It’s time to look at your odd hobbies with an open mind. In order to further find your special “niches” of knowledge, so to speak, you must look deeper and consider a broader definition of knowledge. Don’t underestimate yourself, and don’t feel silly in identifying something strange you may know and running with it.
Use knowledge from special interests or hobbies to decide on writing themes and adapt your writing to your interests.
Perhaps you’re a Lord of the Rings fanatic. You know every character, every spell, every line. If this is where your head’s at, then I think you’ve found your genre.
4) Recall Your Experiences
One of the greatest things about the adage – write what you know – is that, simply by living life, every one of us knows something. Every experience can be written to engage an audience and, even better, the knowledge gleaned from the experience is unique to you.
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg
Not only should you write about the experience, itself, but the emotions and sensations involved. This is a sort of experiential knowledge that, if executed well, will read as genuine, authentic, and true: the three keys to beautiful writing.
There’s an art to making our knowledge interesting enough for our readers to care about. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, readers respond to emotion, not to boring ol’ whitewashed fact. As Nanci Panuccio of emergingwriters put it:
“Just because something really happened doesn’t automatically make it believable or interesting. The facts of our experience alone rarely add up to the emotional intensity our readers long for.
Bret Anthony Johnston once said, ‘The goal isn’t to represent an experience, but instead to create a piece of art that is itself an experience.’”
5) Expand Your Knowledge
Take what you know and expand it. After deciding what you know and are interested enough in to write about, do some research to make your world, fiction or nonfiction, believable. Then try adapting your knowledge to your writing, not the other way around.
Adapt your knowledge to your writing, not the other way around.
“One of the most common reasons given for reading fiction is the desire to enter an imaginary world that is also somehow recognizable and believable,” says Isabel Costello of literarysofa. “There’s more to it than what you know. It’s also what you feel, what you’re willing to discover and what you’re capable of creating from nothing.”
Next week, we’ll talk about how to write about what you don’t know.