If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not), you’ve no doubt heard the maxim, “write what you know”. But as is the case with many pithy sayings, taking these words too literally can lead to disastrous results. I mean, let’s be honest, for most of us, the list of things we’ve experienced first-hand (i.e. “know”) would amount to one or two interesting books/movies/puppet shows at the absolute most. The vast majority of our lives are spent sleeping, sitting in traffic, eating unremarkable meals, staring at our phones, working, and having conversations with our friends and family about all of these mundane things. In other words, if your everyday life was the plot of a story you were reading/watching, you’d be fast asleep in less than 10 minutes.
But I’m not saying that we should take “write what you know” and throw it off the end of a pier. Because there is great wisdom in the maxim if we use a much less literal interpretation. In fact, the saying might even benefit from a small re-write¹. Something like:
“Write what you know…emotionally.”
Or better yet:
“Write what you’ve felt.”
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a stream of consciousness novel or the next Marvel movie, the writer’s job is to explore what it means to be a human being. And the human experience is – and always will be – defined by our emotional response to the world around us. Our ability to feel things – or sometimes: our inability to avoid feeling things – is what separates us from everything else on the planet (e.g. plants, animals, mountains, oceans, Styrofoam cups, et al.) In fact, our emotions/feelings are such an indispensable part of what it means to be alive that we often project our emotions/feelings onto plants, animals, Styrofoam cups, and perhaps most famously, volleyballs.
But we don’t have to have been stranded on a desert island for four years to know what loneliness feels like, anymore than we have to be a mutant with superpowers to know what it’s like to feel alienated.
Because people (often) seek out stories to escape the mundanity of everyday life, writers need to construct plots that are dripping with imagination and ingenuity. Plot, after all, is what gets the reader/viewer “in the door”; whether it’s through a movie trailer or the blurb on the inside cover of a book. But aside from the occasional paint-by-numbers mystery or trashy-for-the-sake-of-being-trashy romance novel, plot is never going to be what holds the viewer/reader’s attention. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, the two things that truly engage an audience are relatable characters² and the relationships those characters share with one another.
And that’s where “writing what you know” comes into play. Because the only way to write relatable characters and character relationships that feel authentic is for the writer(s) to draw on their own emotional history.
Whenever I think about this subject, I’m reminded of screenwriter Bob Gale’s impetus for writing Back to the Future. He didn’t set out to write a time travel epic or to explore the differences between being a teenager in the 50’s versus 80’s. The idea came when he was flipping through his father’s high school yearbook, and he thought to himself, “God, there is just no way that my old man and I would be friends if we went to school together.”³
And sure, if you think about BTTF today, I’m sure the first things to pop into your head are the DeLorean, or Marty disappearing in the family photo, or Doc’s favorite two words in the English language. But I would argue that the reason that movie still holds up today (more than 30 years after it was made) is the universality of its emotional core: a boy trying to understand what makes his father (and mother, for that matter) tick. Because while none of us have ever traveled back in time, we all have parents, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re still trying to figure them out.
And this, of course, is just one of about a million emotional chords that resonate within all of us. Our job as writers is simply to choose one close to our own hearts and pour it out onto the page. After all, you know what they say: