Thursday, March 19, 2009

Write What You Know

We’ve all heard the advice, write what you know at one time or another. I remember hearing it in an English class. Write what you know takes a lot of heat from writers. Some have said it is the worst piece of advise they have ever received. We can point to writers who wrote about things they didn’t know and yet pulled it off. Take Jurassic Park for example. It is obvious to any computer geek that the writers didn’t know enough about computers, but that didn’t keep them from writing a good movie. Still, of all the rules of writing, write what you know might ought to be the one that goes right up there at the top of the list.

It’s true that many writers have developed stories around characters who look remarkably like the writer prior to the time he chose to sit down at the keyboard and pound at the keys, but we can’t make every character look like us, act like us, have the same job as us. That would be very boring. And we don’t have time to go try our hand at every job that we might like for a character to have. It seems like write what you know is dead, until we take another look at what it means to write what you know.

Consider the original Star Wars (episode four). What could be farther from what the writer knew than Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away…? But look at what George Lucas did. He stuck our hero, Luke Skywalker, on a desert planet, it turns out he is a farmer, working with his Uncle and Aunt, who are farmers. We quickly see that these are salt of the earth people. And then the storm troopers kill them. Why? Because we know the pain of death. George Lucas knew the pain of death and that’s what he wrote. Goaded by the death of the only family he has known, we understand why Luke would leave home to join the fight to save the galaxy.

To write what you know is to write about the emotions you have experienced. So maybe you haven’t experienced the loss of a parent, but you know people who have. Maybe you haven’t experienced the loss of a child, but you have an idea of how it must feel. Maybe breaking up with a girlfriend isn’t the same as having your wife walk out on you, but it gives you an idea. We know the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. We know fear and worry. We know desire and lust. We are able to overlay our emotional experiences on any situation.

We write what we know. We don’t allow our characters to be motivated by things we don’t understand. Instead, we assume that the motivation a character has is similar to an emotion we experienced in a similar situation. A character loses his job and we don’t write about his logical plans to get a new job, instead we write about his anger at his employer, his fear of being unable to care for his family and his joy at having some time at home. Those are the things that matter. Those are the things we know. So, write what you know. It will do you good.