You’ve heard the old writing advice: Write what you know.
It takes other forms, as well. Write your story. Write your life. Write what’s closest to you.
I’ve heard people argue that we each have so much conflict in our own lives, there’s no need to reach outside of our personal stories for writing material.
That is true and not true.
I believe that writing and reading is essentially emotional. Every other tactic we use, each formal element of a tale, is employed with the intention of eliciting an emotional reaction. So in the emotional sense, yes, you are absolutely writing what you know. Every scene you write derives from emotions you have yourself felt. And that gives you license to write outside of your own experiences. Perhaps you’ve never felt the desperation of losing a comrade int he midst of battle—but you lost your mother to cancer. Perhaps you’ve never felt the joy of discovering an estranged sister—but you have a sister whom you love deeply.
Every emotion we write stems from something we have felt. Even if we draw on simple sadness to write heart-wrenching agony, the emotion comes from something real.
The genres of fantasy and science fiction prove that emotions are transferrable, even in situations we have not experienced or could never experience. Sometimes it is necessary to remove the familiar situation in order to find the emotional truth. [Click to Tweet]
In fact, not only do we have license to write outside our own experiences, we have a responsibility. Studies have proven that reading increases one’s capacity for compassion and empathy. Literature places you firmly in someone else’s shoes and asks you to feel what they feel. By reading, we come to empathize with others’ situations—rather than simply sympathize with them—because we recognize the universality of emotions. We realize that I have not seen what they’ve seen, but I’ve felt what they’ve felt. And that makes others’ worlds more recognizable to us. It helps us to see each other as people who are all undergoing the human experience.
Why should writers themselves be barred from this incredible power of literature to make real that which otherwise seems unreachably foreign?
Write what you know.
Truth in literature is not confined to reality. And what you know is more than what you have experienced. So write what you know. Write the emotions that drive you. Write your hopes and fears. Write your deepest desires. Write your story. But don’t think that means you have to write only what you have experienced.
Literature is stronger than that.