Last updated on February 3, 2017
If writers only write what they know, the world, and their writing, will be very boring spaces. Well, with a few exceptions.
Like many writers, I had a series of “careers” and a diverse education before I figured out a way to write for a living. I’ve described before how I do other things than just writing: editing, formatting, and other tasks, most of them relating to publishing. They all have one thing in common: writing about them is boring except to other writers.
So as an author, what do you write about? I mean, they say write what you know, but in many ways what I know sucks. There are only so many stories of fast food workers, Fed Ex delivery drivers, and ski bums that people can stand, right?
When we say “write what you know” we don’t mean your job, past occupations, and the criminal activities you may or may not have participated in in college. That is what research is for, and if you are not a writer you will often find them to be quite knowledgeable on several topics if you engage them in conversation.
This is because we, as writers, write what we get to know. We research, study, and become unqualified experts on any number of topics to make our stories richer. Therefore, from time to time, we get it wrong in our stories. Many of us are not police officers, doctors, lawyers, or other professions we write about. We’ve just researched them.
But there are things we can write about that we do know, and that is what we mean when we say “write what you know.”
If anyone is familiar with fear, it is a writer, regardless of how sheltered the rest of their life might have been. For the most part, though, writers have endured fear in many areas of their lives.
Every time you sit down to look at a blank page, whether it is to write an article or blog post or to start that next story or novel, a writer experiences fear: fear that the words won’t come this time, or that someone will discover how poorly we write, or worse that no one will read our work at all.
This fear is something we can put into our stories and our characters. When they are afraid, we can describe it accurately, show it to our readers. To do so, we must be open and allow our own fear to show through.
This is tough: it means we are making ourselves vulnerable. It means that in every moment of fear in our work, our readers catch a glimpse of what is inside us, and that makes for great fiction.
Blue October, Fear [Explicit]
If there is one thing artists do an astonishing job at, it is love. We also tend to love imperfectly, because we are flawed, and our attention is often drawn to things it should not be. It’s hard to walk through the day and not be distracted by something that is the next story idea, even just an odd creative spark.
However, when we love, we love with everything we are and are loyal to a fault. Sometimes that love is misunderstood because our loyalties are so divided. We are loyal to our craft and our stories, often even our characters. It does not mean we don’t have enough love for others too, it just means we struggle with the balance between the real world and the fantasy we live in.
Writers are often broken and dark, and our writing is where the darkness goes so we do not spread it to those around us. When we are not writing and creating, we are dangerous, hurtful people, the gods forgive us. When we create and channel that darkness, we love with a fierce passion, and take our place among the gods.
Can we write of this struggle to love? Of course we can, because every story is a love story, whether it is in the romance genre or not. Every story has love of something woven into it. To be effective, though, we must show this love to our readers: the pain of it, the struggle, and the triumph.
Speaking of the darkness we release through our writing, we must understand that to make it effective, we must not fear showing it to our readers. This is the thing we know so well, yet is difficult to write about. It reveals something inside us we don’t always want the world to see.
I don’t care what genre you write in, there is at some point darkness in your story. The moment the love interests part in a fight over some silly little thing, the moment the husband dies and the woman has to move on, or the moment the murder kills or the monster appears.
The monster is us. Those that are most real contain elements of our darkest secrets, our hidden flaws, the secret desire to destroy that lives within us, shrouded in the shadows of our hearts.
We must provide this darkness a place to play, to live in the light so that we do not harm those around us.
Our victories sometimes are small. That one publishing credit. The one book or article acceptance. The one moment when we feel validated as a writer. The time when our child is actually kind or shares a story of their own. The time when we actually do get the girl (or guy), the one who understands us to our very soul and supports us.
These are the triumphs we know. These are the feelings, the emotions, the joy we can infuse into our stories the moment our hero slays the dragon, gets the bad guy, gets the girl, or finally overcomes that one issue in his life.
We must, whenever we can, balance the darkness with triumph. We must impart to our readers the one thing that keeps us going: hope.
You know more than you think as a writer. But it is the things you know in your soul that matter the most. These are the things you must write about. Write what you know. Learn what you don’t.