The Truth Behind Writing What You Know

If you are middle class and took piano lessons and went to your high school prom with a 26 year old closeted gay enfant who wore a waiter’s monkey suit borrowed from his crack-addicted friend (true story), does that mean you should only be writing about a middle class character who …

You get the picture.

Write what you know. What does it mean?

The divide on this debate is razor sharp. Either writing from your life alone is legitimate or it’s an imaginative free-for-all. Post-Modernists completely divorce writer from writing. So what’s the truth?

The list of Literary Greats is populated by thinly disguised autobiography. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tolstoy. They cannibalised their lives for literary fodder. Even Dickens built his fantastic and wacky and unforgettable literary world upon a framework of autobiographical studs.

Let’s not even get into sci-fi or fantasy. Okay, just a little. Because Tolkien’s nearly all-male roundup was a reflection of the social and intellectual life he knew and lived. Same thing with CS Lewis and his blatant Christian allegory. Not that I mention those particular authors together for any particular reason.

Think Douglas Adams and his life experience had nothing to do with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy?  Think again.

What if you don’t want to write about your life, or base stories on your life? What gives writers the right write about whatever they want?

Here’s the thing.  You can write about anything you want. Really. But if you don’t understand what you’re writing about then the jig is up.  You need insight. There has to be truth and authenticity behind every word.  If your nice life with nice parents and nice friends just doesn’t hold enough interest to form the crux of a narrative, don’t even attempt to write about abusive alcoholics if you don’t understand that world. If you don’t know what you’re talking about the reader will know instantly.  If you don’t know what you’re talking about but still have a burning need to write about it, then research, research, research.  For every page of written material there should be a background database ten times that amount – character bios, history, climatological nuances, economic and historic influences. Even when the background material never makes it to the written page, it’s there. This point will probably be repeated several times across various posts. It’s important.

Remember that your storytelling must convince even your expert readers.

Integrity must flow through your creation.

That’s if you want to be a writer.

If you want to be an author, history has already cast the vote. The best use their experiences and perceptions to help create an imaginative world.

The Greats, well, that’s something else.

Great storytelling is spurred from deep within – who a writer is, where he or she comes from, and the way they perceive the world. Greats are formed by Place, and place informs their narratives. Faulkner wrote Yoknapatawpha County to stand in for Lafayette County, the site of his upbringing; Thomas Hardy called his Dorchester origins Wessex and wrote masterfully about the microculture of its inhabitants. Nothing of Albert Camus was not touched by his French Algerian world view and the intimacies of his upbringing and family history.

In the finest fiction, particular observations about place, time, and people – behaviours and character and human nature – underscore every sentence, paragraph, and chapter.

How your mind processes your world can’t be taught, and this is what separates writer from author, and author from the Greats. All the talent and skill in the world will never make up for the deficit if there is no magic in the way a writer’s mind works.

If your narrative is going nowhere, it may be because it’s not coming from you. Go back to the constructs of your family life, the dynamics of the culture and society and history that bred you. Go back to who you are and why you are. It doesn’t have to be the story, but it can be the framework or the insight for the story. Let your imagination do the rest. Then maybe your writing will start to shine.


Filed under Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing

2 responses to “The Truth Behind Writing What You Know

  1. “Here’s the thing. You can write about anything you want. Really.” Loved that! Might have to quote you on my twitter account:P

    I have never really thought about it before, but when I write non-fiction, I tend to use my own experience as a base. But when I write fiction I don’t let myself be held back by such things since everything is possible in fiction. I’m lower middle class, so this often shines through in my standard, non fiction short stories. In my big fantasy project on the other-hand, there is just a huge black pot with a bit of EVERYTHING in it, and I feel like the witch stirring in it. Just without the wart on my nose:P lol!

    • Here’s something to twist your mind up: maybe you only think you’re the witch stirring the brew but in reality you’re the pot, and the EVERYTHING going into the story is part of you – much of which may be unconsciously so.


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