Don’t Not Write What You Don’t Know

There are a lot of bullshit truisms that aspiring writers get taught. Some might even call them “myths,” WINK. One of the things I want to do on here is obstinately insist that the exact opposite of these truisms are true, because they are and fuck you.

So, “Write what you know.” Where to even start? Well, let’s start by clarifying what it means to “know” something in this context, because there are a few things it could mean:

  1. Things you learned through research. How cobra venom works, or how much stuff weighs on the moon, for example.
  2. Abstract emotional truths that connect us to all other humans — how bad it feels to get dumped, or how good it feels to shoot a snot rocket out of your nose in the shower.
  3. Stuff that literally happened to you, which you now feel compelled to tell me about it.

I’m fine with the first two. If you wanna learn stuff like a big goober, I’m not gonna stop you. But too many people hear the phrase “write what you know” and immediately think, “Hey! I know stuff! I should write about that stuff!” And no. Stop. Listen to me.

Here’s the problem: most of you are boring as hell. I mean, I’m extremely interesting, and even I have never been in a knife fight, a car chase, or even a spaceship. If what you are interested in writing is fiction, ie ridiculous long-form lies, then limiting yourself to writing about things that have happened to you does two things:

  1. It severely limits the kinds of stories you can tell
  2. It makes you think that everything that happens to you is just soooooo important

Let’s dive into each of these, shall we?

Thinking Small is for Wieners

One of the main things about writing is that it’s really, really hard. (At least it is for me. If it’s easy for you then eat shit I guess, I’m the one writing this post.) If you take a hard thing, and then you add even more barriers to doing it, it won’t be long until you’ve made that thing entirely impossible. If you tell yourself that you can’t write about something until it’s happened to you, that means there’s a lot of shit that you can’t write about. Have you ever negotiated a hostage situation? Pet a giraffe? Hell, statistically roughly half of you don’t even menstruate. By ruling out 99% of the stories you could possibly tell, you’re making it 99% harder to even start writing in the first place, let alone write something you’re excited enough about to keep going.

That said, it’s also really hard to write something if you don’t know where to start. So my advice is to use what you know as a starting point, and then extrapolate from that in order to write about what you actually want to write about.

One of my favorite writers is a sci-fi author named Samuel Delaney. Delaney has this book called Babel-17, and in this book there are a couple of enormous space battles, and the way he handles these space battles has taught me more about writing than pretty much anything else (except for one long-forgotten episode of Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, but that’s a story for another time).

The thing about the space battles in Babel-17 is that Babel-17 is not a book about space battles. It’s a book about how horny Samuel Delaney is for linguistics. He spent so much time researching words that he didn’t have time to learn about gravity propulsion technology or the doppler effect or whatever other hard sci fi bullshit all the other space opera boys can’t wait to tell you about. But he still wants the space battles to be exciting, because they’re fucking space battles. So what does he do? He hand-waves the whole problem away by talking about power tools. This is the commander of a pirate fleet setting up for a big conflict:

Tarik’s voice over the speaker: “Carpenters gather to face thirty-two degrees off galactic center. Hacksaws at the K-ward gate. Ripsaws make ready at the R-ward gate. Crosscut blades ready at T-ward gate… Power tools commence operations. Hand tools mark out for finishing work.”

Samuel Delaney, Babel-17

This spicy hot word salad gives me almost no idea what these ships look like, or what kind of weapons they have, or what their jobs are. That’s because Samuel Delaney doesn’t fucking care. What he cares about is that the pirate fleet is organized (like a collection of tools), dangerous (also like a collection of tools), and in space (like a collection of space tools.) Samuel Delaney knew more about tools than he did about space stuff (as do most of us!), so he used tools as a starting point to get us to understand the situation without having to know a whole lot about it.

“But Cory,” you’re probably thinking, “That’s science fiction. Writers have to extrapolate because nobody has experienced space battles!” And first of all, that kind of proves my point: do we really want a world where nobody writes about sweet space battles because nobody has experienced any? But second of all, this applies to real world shit too.

Take for example Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is a book about being the mother of a school shooter. School shootings are definitely real, as much as certain lobbyists like to pretend otherwise, but Lionel never experienced one, and she certainly wasn’t the mother of a school shooter. And yet, somehow, the book is really good! Shriver took a real-life tragedy, something all of us are aware of but very few have actually experienced, and she did the hard work of putting herself inside the mind of one of the central participants of the drama. She used what she knew about human nature to — get this — imagine what it would be like to be a different human person with different experiences. You can do that! It’s allowed!

I’m sure Lionel Shriver also did a lot of research into school shootings and their aftermath, too. I’m not saying you should write about somebody else’s traumatic experiences, or somebody else’s culture, without learning everything you can about those cultures and experiences first. But there are certain very important things no amount of research can teach you — namely, what it actually feels like to be a different person in a different situation.

You can do your due diligence to make sure you don’t get anything factually wrong, and you can try really hard not to step on a rake and say something offensive, but at a certain point you hit the end of your research and you have to take a risk. You have to bet it all on your powers of imagination. Sometimes it’ll suck — it won’t sound true, or even cool, and you’ll feel kind of embarrassed. But it’s either that, or remain forever trapped inside the confines of your own limited backstory. Which would be a shame, because…

Nobody Cares About Your Sad Dick

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had this idea that I needed to make my life as interesting as possible so that I would have something to write about. I traveled, and I did lots of drugs (sorry, mom), and one time I may or may not have tried to break into the post office, but no matter what weird shit I did, I was still a middle-class white kid doing things that I thought would make me interesting.

I never experienced racism, sexism, or homophobia. I was never a victim of abuse. I never worried about making rent. My parents loved me, and were shockingly nice to each other, too. And the fucked-up part is, as an aspiring writer, I felt like that was a bad thing. “How am I supposed to be a writer,” I thought to myself, “if I’ve never had anything dramatic happen to me? Truly, I am cursed by this privileged life.” Yeah, I know.

One useful aspect of this mindset was that when bad shit happened to me, I was able to put a positive spin on it. “This sucks,” I would think to myself, “but hey, the worse it sucks, the better it will be when I eventually write about it.” The problem, though, was that I ended up turning my life into a narrative, rather than, you know, a life. I found myself living in front of an audience, thinking about how I would word my description of an experience even as I was experiencing it. My suffering felt important, and real, and necessary. It was an exhausting way to live.

The thing about most of your experiences, even the ones that sucked, is that they’re way more important to you than they are to anybody else. Although your ability as a writer may make you able to convey common experiences in an entertaining and illuminating manner, events do not become more important simply by virtue of having happened to you, a writer. Some of your life experiences, properly told, might make great anecdotes, short stories, or performances at a storytelling event. But as far as supporting a whole book’s worth of words? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more dubious. If I had a nickel for every random white guy who’s told me he’s working on a memoir, I’d have more money than all of them are ever going to make off of all those memoirs combined.

This is how you end up with Jonathan Franzen types endlessly writing books about mopey professors who desperately want to fuck their students. It’s how you end up with college sophomores writing about their mushroom trips like they’re the fucking moon landing (not fake version). It’s how you can convince yourself, if you’re not careful, that you’re the main character of reality, and that your experiences are somehow more real than everybody else’s.

I promise you, your experiences are not unique. And that’s good! It means you have something in common with pretty much anyone you might want to write about — a space pirate, Jonathan Franzen, the mother of a school shooter, etc. Writing is mosaic-making — rearranging fragments of the stuff in your head to make a pretty picture. Regurgitating exactly what’s happened to you is like making a mosaic out of one big rock you found at the beach. Take the stuff in your head and crush it up, recombine it, mix it with stuff you got from other people. The smaller you make the pieces, the smoother you can make the curves; the more realistic you can make your final image.

So don’t write what you know. Write with what you know, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll know something new.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Not Write What You Don’t Know

  1. “Your suffering is not important” was definitely an important lesson, once.

    … On the other hand, there are worse fates than ending up like Jonathan Franzen, probably. But it’s not worth engaging in endless self-flagellation just for the small chance of ending up like Jonathan Franzen.

  2. Hunter S Thompson typed out two entire novels—The Great Gatsby & A Farewell To Arms—in his quest to learn the ebb and flow of storytelling and how characters wander in and out. Seems like a reasonable idea: if I can’t straight copy someone else’s novel, how am I going to ever write mine?

  3. I, a too-polite type, once spent 20 minutes listening to a rural girl narrating her trip to WalMart in a quest for the perfect fucking curtains. No character development, no crisis resolved, not even boy meets girl.

    Be concise, abandon the backstory and avoid asides. Cut the adjectives. When you have edited it down to only the necessary details, read it and ask yourself if it’s relevant to your audience.

    Obviously, I’m ignoring all that right now. Freezing rain is falling (irrelevant backstory!) and I’m stuck here bored.

    Oh, she was lithesome and kinky and the hot monkey sex was worth a 20 min WalMart story. Good weed, too. 😉

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