Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us.
A lot of writing advice is really useful — “show, don’t tell”, “kill your darlings”, and “write every day” have been pretty clear and reliable to me. However, one piece of writing advice that never failed to confuse me was “write what you know.” This convenient phrase sounds easy in the moment, whether you read it from a list of writing tips or a mentor urges you onward with an inspiring tone.
“Ah,” you think. “Of course. Write what I know — what else would I write?”
It’s not until you’re sitting in front of a blank screen, the blinking cursor taunting you, that you realize how terribly unclear this advice is. The barrage of questions starts:
What do I know? Do I write about my life? Do I write about the books and poetry I’ve read? Have I read the right authors? Do I know enough about my subject? Do I even know anything?
The doubt starts to creep in. Writers have complicated, full lives, right? They’re artists, so they have to be tortured, or worldly. I have so much life I haven’t lived! What do I possibly have to offer?
Over time, I have come to find that this deceptively simple saying is pretty misleading. For me, it has more to do with perspective. Writing what we know is not writing what has happened to us, but rather writing through the lens of what has happened to us. In other words, we write with the eyes through which we see the world.
The best way I can illustrate this is to have you picture a simple scene: a horse runs through a field.
Picture it. Really picture it, every last detail, like you are living it right there and now. Got it?
Here’s what I see: A black horse gallops through a field of overgrown and wild grass. The sunlight ripples on it like on the vast ocean. It’s distant and yet the earth vibrates as it thunders past, the center of everything. Then it’s gone.
I’m willing to bet that’s not what you saw, because that’s not what you know. The colors of that (very short) story were impermanence and vastness and darkness and light. The colors of your story were likely something different, but beautiful nevertheless.
I hope that makes “write what you know” a little clearer. If not, don’t be afraid to write a little of what you don’t know, just as long as you’re writing something.