There’s a fundamental bit of writerly wisdom that suggests that in order to write compelling or even marketable work you should “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, many beginning and even not so beginning writers take this to mean they should write about themselves. While writing about yourself might be therapeutic and even mildly entertaining to folks close to you, the world will likely not share your enthusiasm about you.
The true meaning of write what you know is to weave our personal experience into our work while not necessarily writing about ourselves.
One of the all-time champions of write what you know is author Ernest Hemingway. Whatever you might think of the man personally, his writings are replete with actual experiences from his life that have given birth to some of our greatest American literary treasures. Let’s examine a couple of examples.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway puts his love for the Caribbean and sport fishing to work. Notice how his experience with the various natural elements that are commonplace to a deep-sea fisherman brings even this simple scene to life:
They sailed well and the old man soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. There were high cumulus clouds and enough cirrus above them so that the old man knew the breeze would last all night. The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true. It was an hour before the first shark hit him.
See how the fisherman keeps himself alert by dipping his hands in the cold water, how he reads the clouds and the breeze, how he has to remind himself that he actually did catch his prize, and how he remains aware of sharks. Only someone who has experienced these elements and this dedicated a fisherman could bring readers so deeply into this character’s world.
Likewise, Hemingway’s experience as a WWII medic makes A Farewell to Arms a powerful and unforgettable blend of war and romance. The following excerpt shoves readers headlong into a reality that virtually every soldier who has faced death and hardship knows.
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Without his actual wartime experience, it is doubtful that the author could have captured so profoundly the start resignation of this reality.
Note that in neither of these stories does Hemingway write about himself. Rather, he takes his observations and experiences of war and sport fishing and fictionalizes them to create characters and events that, although they may have actually existed somewhere and at some time, are mere fictional inventions designed to helps readers experience what he experienced in story.
Just today, I was working on a story based on an element one of our Writerspark members suggested. I had called for members to post a pet peeve, and one suggested: “People who tailgate instead of driving in the fast lane.” I ran with it and an entire story developed almost spontaneously.
The story begins with a man still angry about his unexpected divorce driving in a car, then closes with a potential romance with someone from his past. The story unfolds rather quickly and the response from those who critiqued the piece was unanimously positive.
What made the story come so easily and so fully in a way that brought reader appreciation? It was real. Well, not real real, but its elements were genuine and written in an everyday tone people can relate with. While I never drove around and got in an accident that resulted in a romance, I have experienced unexpected divorce, I have driven around grumbling about it, I have been tailgated at night, I have been in accidents, and I have met women from my past to whom I have been attracted.
Here’s an excerpt that contains some of the main character’s thoughts as he is driving.
WARNING: This excerpt contains raw language.
European? The bastard wears fucking Capri pants, carries a goddamn purse, and that makes him European? Faithful for 14 fucking years, no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no drugs, no abusive behavior, great provider, surprises all the time and she leaves me for that… that… whatever the fuck he is?
My personal experience with divorce gives me keen insights into the kinds of thoughts that can run through a person’s mind in the aftermath of such emotional trauma. While the thoughts in this excerpt are not my personal thoughts, they are representative of the kinds of thoughts a divorcee would experience and are presented with what I believe is a realistic tone. Without my experiences, I would simply be guessing at what a recently divorced person might think and likely not come off as believable.
If you’re reading this, it’s a safe bet that you’re a writer. It’s also a safe bet that you’re trying to improve your craft. Over the years I have spoken and corresponded with a great many writers, and one common theme that comes up over and over is how to make our writing more real. Dissatisfaction with the lack of realness in our prose seems an almost universal concern. In reading a good amount of work that seemed to lack realism or believability, it seemed clear in almost every case that the writer was trying to write about things with which they were not intimately familiar.
A writer cannot believably relate sexual intimacy id they have never experienced sex; a writer cannot believably relate being bombarded for hours in a foxhole if they’ve never intimately experienced being in battle; a writer cannot believably relate exotic gardening if they have no experience with gardening.
That’s not to say that solid research and immersion into subject we have never personally experienced can’t result in believable work. After all, no one has been to an actual planet beyond Earth yet untold believable science fiction stories have been written. Still, even though such stories include alien worlds, creatures and technologies, much of what they contain becomes real if we consider that experience with desolate terrains can be turned into other worlds; that observations of the animal world coupled with human behaviors can be turned into alien creatures; and that understanding the predictions of future technologies can generate ideas of nonexistent alien technology.
In depth research coupled with observations of real world elements can and does constitute experience when it comes to composing fiction. It’s tricky, takes a keen imagination and a firm grasp of any science or uncommon elements to pull off believably. Still, as valid as research is to forming the basis for a story, nothing, not even good science fiction can exist without genuine personal experiences.
Take the Star Wars novels for example. Without the universal father/son conflict with which virtually all of humanity has experience, the basic plot could never exist. — So, too, with the bond between brother and sister, the connection of comrades in arms, our human hunger for freedom, as well as the reality of the powerful forever trying to dominate the weak.
While Star Wars never really happened, and the people and places we experience in those stories never existed, our shared experiences with the human elements as well as our current connection to technology make these stories real for us. So while George Lucas never visited Tattoine or a Death Star, he is a human being and brings his human experiences to his characters to make them real. His technology becomes real because he makes it recognizable: light sabers are swords, the death star is the future’s tank, the star fighters are futurized military fighters.
Although you may not wish to create a future world, your personal experiences can be put to use in innumerable ways to create almost limitless story possibilities. Your long wait in a grocery line can become a wait in some post-apocalyptic food line. Your observations of an elderly woman on a park bench, coupled with life with a newly-widowed grandparent could bring a story about aging and loneliness to life. Virtually every single thing you have or ever will see or experience is food for a believable element within your fiction. The trick is to pay attention to life and never underestimate the value of a single experience, good or bad. It’s all food for fiction.