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Write What You Know – The Quest For Authenticity

April 30th, 2013 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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“Write what you know”. Is it merely a dangerous idea, or could there be something genuinely useful in this controversial writerly advice?

So what is the “real meaning” behind write what you know? Let’s take a look at the outcome of following the phrase. If you write what you know, what does that bring to the finished piece? In theory it should make it appear more real – your own experiences and factual knowledge means you’ll write words or phrases someone else might not.

So the magical writing ingredient the phrase is trying to add to your writing is authenticity.

But there is more than one way to add authenticity to your writing. So let’s take a look at some of the things “write what you know” is hinting at.

Personal Authenticity

You know stuff. No matter your line of work (or work you’ve undertaken in the past), it requires specialist knowledge of some description. It doesn’t matter how mundane it seems to you, all can be brought to bear.

You’re a mechanic? Maybe some of your engineering knowledge can be brought to bear in a spaceship hangar, or perhaps the hangar crew share similar banter to you and your colleagues.

You’re a receptionist? High-tech body modification centres need receptionists too. Or why not make the mundanity the draw – what would the job of receptionist be like in a Bond-esque super-villain headquarters? That kind of comic juxtaposition can make for an original story.

Emotional authenticity is also important, and something everyone can draw on. Part of Stanislavski’s famous acting system asked players to reach back into their memories and pick a moment where they felt something comparable to their characters (he called this Emotional Memory).

Constatin Stanislavski

Stan The Man. I thought I was rid of him after uni, but here he is again.

When it comes to imagining what your characters are doing or thinking, writing shares an awful lot with acting. You may not have been in the same position as the character you’re writing about, but you may be able to recall a time when you felt similar emotion. You can then relive that (to an extent) and transfer some of it to the page.

Writing for Writer’s Digest, Elan Barnehama talks about writing a lesbian character in the sixties. He found common ground with his character because she was an outsider, and when he was younger he had been too.

Tourist Authenticity

Sticking with acting, Jason Gots writing for Big Think, compares “write what you know” with the Method (an acting technique popularised in America and derived from Stanislavski’s System). The popular view of the Method is the actor literally lives out the situation of their character.

This is only partly true, because obviously there are some things you literally can’t live through, either because it is dangerous or simply not possible (fighting dragons for example).

So, if your character is a farmer, you might go and work on a farm for a while.

The same is useful in writing. Obviously, you are dipping your toes into an experience that may have taken up your character’s whole life, but you can at least get an idea, and can bring some of that to bear. As an example, Joanna Penn took a Krav Maga class so she knew what it felt like to get hit (and because her protagonist is similarly trained in martial arts).

krav maga

I happen to know someone who teaches Krav Maga (no, I haven’t worked up the balls to take lessons. They sound painful). Head over to Institute Kravmaga. Tell Jon Matt sent you.

But it doesn’t have to be so specific. In an ideal world a writer should be immersing themselves (like an actor) in as wide a variety of experiences as possible. This is great for inspiration too.

Second-Hand Authenticity

And there’s always research. If you don’t have particular knowledge of something, you can speak to someone who does, or you can read up on it.

It sounds less valuable than first-hand knowledge, and I suppose it is, but sometimes all you need are one or two details to make something feel real.

K. M. Weiland calls this writing what you know “vicariously”, and I think that’s a good way of putting it.

Discovered Authenticity

This is a strange one, because it’s not entirely clear where the “authenticity” comes from. But sometimes, simply writing what you don’t know, jumping in at the deep end, can unearth surprisingly authentic details in your writing.

Maybe the act of writing digs deep inside you and pulls up experiences from your subconscious. This could come from any of the sources above – it might be a childhood memory of someone you had forgotten about, a passage in a book, a fact you learnt on television.

After all, isn’t writing supposed to be a voyage of discovery – not just for the reader, but the writers as well?

Fiction, at its very essence, is all about what we don’t know

K. M. Weiland, Write what you know (and what you don’t), Wordplay

Often it is that probing, feeling, edging your way into the unknown (or hell, just barrelling straight into it) that gives the most authentic-feeling insight. The details of a character that make them seem most alive, most real are not the ones dreamed out on a character sheet. Not to knock preparation – it often helps to have somewhere to start – but some of the best stuff comes at the most unexpected times – when you’re in the thick of it, pulling things out of thin air.

It’s not always easy or comfortable, but I’ve learned to trust my characters and I’ve learned that the story truth is found in writing into the unknown [...] When I trust my characters to decide what must happen, I give myself opportunities to stumble onto the unexpected truth, the accidental truth, the story truth, which is so much more interesting than my memory truth.

Elan Barnehama, Why you should write about what you don’t know, Writer’s Digest

So don’t write “what you know”, write The Truth, in whatever way that phrase has meaning for you. Often The Truth is a combination of truths – facts, personal feelings, an atmosphere, a point of view, combined to reveal something that would not have been discovered if you had not been writing.

So you can now forget about this post and just write. Write and the truth will come.

Over to you:
What do you think of this controversial maxim? Is there some wisdom hidden in the phrase after all? Or is it still the worst advice ever? Let us know in the comments below (see, I do poetry too!)