Caroline Meek: They Told Me to Write What I Know, So I Wrote About Dragons

October 16, 2017

"Write what you know."

You hear this advice often.

This isn't exactly a post for or against that philosophy, but I wanted to look into it.  Maybe you've heard that phrase repeated for years, a senseless mantra that you're not totally sure you can get behind.  Does it mean that you should only write characters that know and experience the same things that you do?  Obviously not—you'd end up creating a book stocked exclusively with 18ish-year-olds writing novels when they should be doing literally anything else, reading under blankets, and dreaming about changing the world. Okay actually I wouldn't mind reading that book.

Clearly, you're going to write about characters who aren't *you*.  General situations aside, if you're a fantasy writer, you're definitely stepping out of what you “know” as a human in this world.  Thank goodness you don't have to be the Son of the High King™ or expertly trained in sword-fighting to craft a good fight scene. Similarly, no one's asking you to casually age 83 years in order to write your character's sagacious old gramma.

There's research, networking...empathy...go talk to someone's elderly relative. Accept their homemade cookie. Write about how that cookie made you feel. #networking

So what is this piece of advice really getting at?  I didn't think I'd be getting this deep into the phrase when I started this post, and I feel slightly unqualified in attempting to define the concept of “writing what you know,” but I'll just give you my thoughts on the idea.

Sometimes you should write what you know.

Take the common human experiences you've experienced and find something cool to say about them.  Let your unique life supplement the lives of your characters.  When you write something that reflects what you see in the real world, you add an element of humanness to your work.  

Sometimes it's okay to write about things you don't know anything about.

Write something that scares you. Write the unknown, because you might learn something from yourself.  About yourself.  It's okay to venture into the dark and poke the plot bunnies that make their home there, among the ideas you're saving until the day you can "do them justice."  

Write what you feel.

Here's the original inspiration for this post. Since getting to college, I've struggled to decide on topics for many of my creative assignments.  I'm a very emotional person, and usually that emotion fuels my writing, so I've thought a lot about how to tap into it.  

Write what's there, in that specific moment.  Draw emotion from the most current pain or joy in your life.  You don't have to assign your exact situation to your character, but infuse them with emotion.  This is often where I find myself in life—sometimes, I feel like I don't know anything at all.  

You don't have to know what's causing your emotion, or how to fix it, in order to write about.  Strong emotion draws people closer in a narrative, because they see pieces of themselves there.  So write what you feel.  Write from the cavity in your chest that's aching to be acknowledged.

Maybe it will scare you, because you yourself don't know what it is quite yet.  But take what's already overflowing inside of you and let it breathe.

Caroline Meek is the author of The Drawing in of Breath and founder of Project Canvas. She has a passion for bringing writers together and is currently studying English & Creative Writing and Theatre at the University of Iowa. Sometimes she puts ice cream in the fridge overnight and wonders why it's melted in the morning. If nothing else, she wishes to convince some people that their words are worth saying. Look for her on her blog, website, Twitter, Pinterest, or in your local coffeeshop, wearing flannel and drinking coffee with too much sugar.

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  1. "Write what you feel" seems like good advice to me! Sometimes I read a piece and it's as though the author has transferred over the aching cavity of feeling in his/her chest into mine... obviously that author did a good job at putting their emotion into their writing. So I agree - write what you feel, and if you don't know about something, then you can research. :)
    - Jem Jones

  2. An excellent post. I love how you concluded: 'Write what you feel'. Powerful! Much better advice than write what you know.

  3. This was a beautiful post, Caroline <3 "Sometimes, I feel like I don't know anything at all" <-- I've been feeling that way so often these days. I want to put it into my characters, but I can't describe it. This post really made me think and get inspired to write.

  4. *applauds* These are much better tips than the original "write what you know"! A few years ago, some of my family used to give me the advice to write characters like me because I could write them well, but I've never really been able to follow that. :)


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