Write about what you know

Write about what you know. This is one of the well known “rules” of fiction writing. Some writers have even taken it too far, and they only write about stuff they’ve been practically obsessing about for at least ten years.

In a way, we all write about ourselves; a part of our subconscious always resurfaces when we’re writing a story, no matter how far apart from our own lives we try to set it. Sadly, most writers try too hard not to involve their personal lives, their pasts, into the stories they’re writing.

A while back I used to do the same thing. I would try to keep the true me as far away from my narrators and characters and situations as possible. And in result, all I wrote were some stories. That’s what anyone can do, with a little bit of practice and time. Most writers might be tempted to draw a line between any character and themselves, for fear of being judged by their friends or relatives (if those people would read their stories), they’re afraid the people they know will see something that they aren’t supposed to see. But these kind of fears only put unnecessary pressure on the writer.

Also, I find it odd that most writers think about their lives and the people they know as never being good enough material for a character or story. Their lives are boring; they haven’t lived long enough, they haven’t seen enough square miles of this Planet, they haven’t done volunteer work in India, and people are going to hate their stories. But that’s not true. If you just  look back at your life, you’ll see some pretty amazing and unique moments.

For any writer the act of writing should imply complete freedom. There are no rules to bind you, not when you’re sitting at that desk doing your thing. No. That’s why you should write about what you love. Write about what you hate, about your dreams and aspirations, write about your nightmares, write about what you hate.

Write about your passions, about the people you admire, write without fearing that you don’t have anything to say, because you do. If you’ve lived on this Planet, or even anywhere remotely close to Earth, you have something to say.

During our lives we accumulate knowledge, we absorb information, we live and breathe, we get our hearts broken, we meet quirky characters, we witness tragedies, we do all sorts of stuff, and all that needs to be there, on paper, because it’s what truly makes art beautiful.

I know it’s a difficult process. I know that introspection is painful, no matter who’s doing it, but I do know that, as Palahniuk once said, art is never born out of happiness. It requires solitude and work, it also requires patience, but keeping true to yourself, being honest in your writing, that can lead to wonderful things.

Art is constantly evolving because of this. Because artists have this unique ability to witness the world around them and absorb details that are invisible to others. They can see the beauty in the most mundane of situations, they can see the sublime in the most outrageous of actions, they can feel what others can’t, and for that they’re willing to pay a price. True artists are rarely happy; they live in order to observe, they live in order to make others feel.

To have the gift of clarity and not use it is a fate more cruel than you can imagine. To write down cute, empty stories because you feel that people will hate your for writing the truth is nothing short of a disaster.

A friend of mine once said that some of our characters have traits that we have and some have traits that we wish we had. We’re all searching for something in our writing. Whether we find it or not, the pursuit is what really matters. And it would be a shame to ruin everything by trying to keep your thoughts and beliefs out of your stories.

Keeping your true self away from your writing is one of the few really harmful things you can do to your stories. After all, we just want to make other people feel and say, “Yes, this can happen, this could happen to me. I believe.”

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35 comments on “Write about what you know

  1. Andrew Conlon says:

    “To have the gift of clarity and not use it is a fate more cruel than you can imagine. To write down cute, empty stories because you feel that people will hate your for writing the truth is nothing short of a disaster.” Right on. You hit the nail on the head. The best writing comes from messy places, and being brave enough to go there is everything as a writer. Your readers expect you to go there, because it’s what YOU know and what they want to find out. Good post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Interestingly, even though I write sci-fi, much of the content comes out of ‘real life’ and very often variants of people I know, or have known.

    On some level its a fictionalized version of my own life.

  3. This is very good advice. Thank you for posting. :)

  4. Beth says:

    Thank you, as I struggle to find the words to say you have put it all in perspective. “The pursuit is what really matters.” A mantra I need to concentrate on. Beth

  5. 'Bamiyo says:

    I just bumped into this post on my reader, and yeah I admit I’ve been missing big time. This is a good advice that dare not be ignored. I appreciate this.

  6. Megan says:

    Very good advice, thank you. I’ve always tried to keep my writing a mix of “what I know” and “what I want to know.” I take what I know about the human condition (as acquired through experience, observation, and study) as the starting point, so I can explore how people might respond to certain situations. It’s not an easy balance, and it gets particularly difficult when I have to delve into the more personal topics. But those tend to be my best pieces.

  7. oliviare says:

    Incredibly well said!
    “Artists have this unique ability to witness the world around them and absorb details that are invisible to others. They can see the beauty in the most mundane of situations, they can see the sublime in the most outrageous of actions, they can feel what others can’t, and for that they’re willing to pay a price. True artists are rarely happy; they live in order to observe, they live in order to make others feel.” — I love this.

  8. colin says:

    Thank you because I have found that as I write more and more I find me creeping into the story and I was afraid to include me and now it happens.

  9. I have really enjoyed this post – it’s very true. Fear can hold us back in doing many things, and writing is one of them. Thank you for this post, it is indeed encouraging for all of us beginning writers.

  10. spreaddapoo says:

    It’s a topic that has been debated so often, and yet everything you have said in your post is still poignant and relevant. I love the idea of writing being freedom. So often, we’ll be bound by the fear of other people discovering parts of ourselves in the stories we write, that maybe they would judge us, and it becomes that much easier to withdraw ourselves so that all that is being judged is merely a superficial limb, only remotely connected to our own selves…
    Your words of advice are taken to heart (!) ;)

  11. fifileigh says:

    my fictional novel was inspired by my surrounded. i just changed the names and other stuff to fictionalized it. but the story also tends to be exaggerated to make it more interesting than real life, anyway.

  12. I sat in a workshop with the poet Frank Bidart about ten years ago. He offered the following advice: Read a lot. Write a lot. Spend time truly living your life. This is a great post about the importance of valuing what you have to offer and writing in a way that reflects your inner truth. All characters stem from aspects of your psyche. Whether they represent the light or the shadow self, they all have something important to say about the human experience. Sometimes the mundane has miraculous things to say.

  13. I certainly do agree with everything you’re saying. I believe you know that how you word things is important too because sentence structure can either carry you along or sound awkward. I really enjoyed your post! It has valuable and pertinent information. I intend to explore your site further. I’m curious now what other gems reside here :O)

  14. namenews says:

    I just want to thank you for posting this. Seriously. Thank you.

  15. This post resonated with me. In my blossoming book I have included every belief I hold dear. So, therefore, I believe its impossible not to put yourself in the book somewhere. :-)

  16. nicolesr says:

    Thank you Cristian, your words will be remembered as I work on some pieces I haven’t touched in quite some time. Even though I started out well with them and dug from inside, I can now see that I changed from that and started to write externally, that was what has blocked me. Thank you again!

  17. soteria2014 says:

    Great advice for budding writers! Thank you.

  18. Sona Rulz says:

    read- a deep sigh- a good morning- F5
    :)

  19. I’ve always thought that it’s what good writers are supposed to do – take from their life and merge it into their stories. That’s what makes stories more enticing to read, isn’t it? When you can’t tell if the author made it up or if it’s part of the author’s past. That mystery, in the back of the reader’s mind, helps to propel the story forward!

  20. mmorreale says:

    Thank you for this great advice. I just saw this post on my reader today, and it inspired my next story!

  21. Very true. I’ve struggled with the same thing. I’m a mental health professional fascinated with maladaptive behavior and how it develops, so I like writing about serial killers, but in writing about serial killers I depict their sociopathic behaviors, which is opposite of my behavior. So I don’t want people to believe I think like a sociopath when I’m merely depicting the thought pattern of a sociopath. I’m going to write what I want and I’ll gain readers, while I lose readers. I can’t please everyone.

  22. estermeila says:

    So interesting!

  23. marymcavoy says:

    Nice post, well said. My experience is that we write what we are more than what we know. When I finish a book I feel as if parts of my psyche and emotions are strewn about the pages. I think that’s why it’s daunting to let it go out readers.

  24. mickiwrites says:

    So true. It’s also therapy for troubled times that can lead to an intriguing plot.

  25. Write what you want and use what you know to give it life.

  26. Honesty is very very important in writing, alright! There will be those who will appreciate and there will be those who will not, so why not just focus on those who appreciate, and also gather inspiration from those who don’t appreciate as well?

    Anyway, I guess most writers, or maybe all writers, write about what they know, and the results can end up being really unfamiliar or new to readers. I guess defamiliarization is already a vital part in the system of a writer, then! Freaking nuts!

  27. Its true. Keep writing with passion. ^^ Thanks Chris

  28. domusgrata says:

    Read Rilke, esp Letters to a Young Poet

  29. katwrite says:

    I enjoyed reading this very much!! Very inspiring! Thank you for posting!

  30. Your posts lately are giving me quite a few awakenings! I used to just stick very close to home, writing only what I knew, and was scared to depart on any exotic or far-off writing journeys (much like I’m terrified to fly in planes and so my vacations have to be road trips or cruises) but one day I went in a helicopter in real life (always a bucket list item to go sled-dogging and the only way to do that in Alaska is to FLY onto a glacier) and ever since that real life phobia was conquered, I see that my writing has also taken off (figuratively) and literally. And it’s been good stuff. Guess soon, I’ll have to sleep with a hundred men since my next novel is about a hooker….lol.

  31. This:

    “For any writer the act of writing should imply complete freedom. There are no rules to bind you, not when you’re sitting at that desk doing your thing. No. That’s why you should write about what you love. Write about what you hate, about your dreams and aspirations, write about your nightmares, write about what you hate.

    Write about your passions, about the people you admire, write without fearing that you don’t have anything to say, because you do. If you’ve lived on this Planet, or even anywhere remotely close to Earth, you have something to say.”

    Yes, this is arguably the best thing I’ve read all night. :) Thank you!

  32. simon7banks says:

    There’s a kind of balance. Some first novels particularly seem to me to have too much of a personal agenda, to be based too closely on something that happened to the writer as the writer sees it, and that makes them out of balance. Once the writer has worked that through, though, often the rest draw on personal experience without being a personal plaint.

  33. So glAd I read this! Great advice

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