Write What You Know (But Don’t Write Autobiography)

If you’ve taken any writing classes at all, you know that one of the staple rules beginners are taught is “write what you know.” Even as a fresh beginner, I never took this advice literally. I was, after all, interested in writing fiction. I didn’t want to tell you exactly what happened the first time I fell in love or what my divorce was like or give the graphic details of my abuse. I wanted to write stories that would stretch further than my own limited experience of the world. I wanted to strive for something bigger than myself.

It’s hard for those who don’t write to understand this concept: that we writers might write from personal experience, but we’re not writing autobiography.

“Write what you know”charges us with the task of taking the essence of our emotional experiences and rendering them universal. I like the way author, Nathan Englander, puts it:

So, do write what you know, but rather than retell actual events, visit those events that left a lasting impression on you, then dig deeper. Forage your memory for the sensual details—the way the breeze delicately rippled the curtain, how the sun shimmered on the cobalt blue vase, the sharp smell of sulfur in the air that 4th of July when you got the news, or the sound of your mother crying behind a closed door.

And forage your heart for what you felt around those sensual details. Because when we write from emotional experience, that’s when we can begin to write universally about the human condition, and that’s when we give ourselves a fighting chance to touch the person who takes the time to read what we’ve bothered to write.

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