The problem with “write what you know”

Comics aren't the only ones that talk about finding “your voice.” Below, an excerpt from author Rafael Yglesias' "There Are No Rules - Cliches for Aspiring Writers" (bold emphasis is mine).

The same caveat applies to the famous advice given to all neophyte writers, “Write what you know.” The implication is autobiography in some form: memoir, fiction in which you are the main character, stories about your family, your background, someone you know well. But the advice is too banal to be useful to a young writer without an obviously compelling story to tell.

What if you are unlucky enough not to have endured the Holocaust, witnessed Apartheid, or been sexually abused by your father? What if you feel that the world you know, although thoroughly unpleasant, is also very dull? Or has been written about so well by another that you have nothing to add?

“Write what you know.”

But what do you know? Is it compelling? I don’t mean to your readers. To you. You will keep company with your writing longer than anyone else. (Unless you’re Tolstoy and your wife copies all your manuscripts by hand seven times over.)

If your subject doesn’t involve emotions, ideas, truths and lies that delight, frighten, soothe and enrage you, how can you expect it to fascinate a stranger? Whether you want to entertain or to provoke, to break hearts or reassure them, what you bring to your writing must consist of your longings and disappointments...

Don’t write what you know.

Don’t write what you love to read.

Don’t write what publishers are looking for.

Don’t write what critics are hailing.

Don’t write what your creative writing teacher claims is the only form of literature that is still dynamic.

Write what horrifies you, write what charms you, write what repels you, write what you love, write, to be aphoristic, what you cannot stop yourself from writing.

Yes, you will have to find “your voice,” and yes, you will have to learn the craft of writing, which is endlessly demanding and so varied that you will probably never feel you are more than a clumsy student. And don’t limit yourself to study only the craft necessary to produce your particular kind of writing. Also learn how the writers you have contempt for do what they do; you may discover something useful for your work.

But all of those necessary skills are servants to your Lord and Master: write what you cannot stop yourself from thinking about, even if it disgusts everyone you know. Readers read to subsume their consciousness, for a profound but limited time, into another’s. Some want reassurance, some want challenge. Some want pleasant lies, some painful realities. You may be unlucky and be fated to have a small audience. That’s too bad. (By the way, it is the fate of almost every writer.)

Over time, if you work hard and write what obsesses you, there will be readers who will want to live in your peculiar universe, and precisely because what you have provided is rare they will be all the more grateful for your creation.

"Write what you cannot stop yourself from thinking about, even if it disgusts everyone you know." Tough to argue with. If it obsesses you, it shows. And vice versa too.

I've heard Howard Stern say something similar too. Something along the lines of: Whatever makes you feel most uncomfortable talking about is the thing you most need to be talking about. Because that's what people want to hear.

And btw, I looked up the definition of subsume: "to include or place within something larger or more comprehensive." So that's what an audience wants to do to your consciousness with theirs. Freaks.


Abbi Crutchfield said...

This is thought-provoking. Other ways to push yourself:

write about what scares you even if your phobias are unfounded and make people assume you have a mental illness

write about your faith even if you think other people will condemn you for it

write about your kids even if you think it makes you boring

Forcing judgment upon yourself and making yourself uncomfortable can yield unfunny results, but it's like emotional boot camp. You come out of it stronger.

Related: this week I heard a comic say he gets a cyst on his taint annually.

myq said...

Does he call it the cyst-taint chapel?

One sincere reaction--
when the author says "don't write what you love to read," that seems odd to me, out of place in the company of "don't write what other people are looking for."

I feel like "write what you love to read" seems like a fine idea.

I agree that in general, "write what you know" is perhaps TOO general. You know a lot of things; some of them are boring things, some of them are things that have been said before, some of them are not worth knowing, potentially.

But still, as compared to the opposite--"write what you DON'T know"--that doesn't make much sense either... I feel like saying to avoid "writing what you know" isn't necessarily the best advice either, and the author here is really advocating writing SPECIFIC parts of what you do know.

Picking apart generally good advice for a few specific points that I disagree with--it's what I know. (And what horrifies and repels and charms me.)

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