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Write What You Know: Rule or Tool?

Author Alexandra Oliva on coming to terms with the old adage of 'Write what you know.'

We’ve all heard it: Write what you know. It’s quite possibly the most ubiquitous piece of writing advice out there, and the first time it was told to me my hackles rose. I was in middle school, sitting in English class, and I remember thinking, So I can only write about chubby, shy girls who live in the middle of nowhere and like science fiction? Screw that. 

I didn’t want to write what I knew, I wanted to write what I wondered. I wanted to engage my imagination to explore lives and worlds far more interesting than my own. What would it be like if aliens invaded? Or if someone fell into a coma that also somehow stopped her from aging and she woke up in a devastated, far-future world? What if the nonsense about video games causing violence got out of hand, and schools started employing clowns as security and coddled students were only allowed to use circles of paper because corners were deemed too dangerous? These were the kinds of ideas that interested me when I was young, but I didn’t “know” anything about any of them. And so I railed against the adage, announcing “I prefer to write what I wonder” in a stubborn, superior tone.

And then I got older, and I realized something: The far-fetched stories I wrote were always at their strongest when informed by something from my real life. For example, in the first novel I ever wrote (which would never be published—for good reason), one of my favourite scenes was when a runaway follows a thief she’s befriended up a tower wall to watch an execution. In my early drafts of this scene, the runaway is scared but she makes it. Specific details are uninteresting, common—the way anyone might write a scene about climbing. But after a couple of years of shopping the manuscript around, I took up rock climbing as a hobby. Suddenly I knew how it felt to cling to a wall, terrified. I knew how my fingers—not just my palms—began to sweat, the specific discomforts that floated through my head and stomach. I was able to add details that came not from common knowledge but direct experience, details that made the scene infinitely richer—details that made the scene mine.

Slowly, I realized I’d been interpreting “write what you know” too literally. That was why it grated. I was in my early twenties by then, a recent college grad living in New York City. But that didn't mean I could only write about twenty-somethings bumbling through city life. It did mean that I could take the overwhelming experience of stepping into an alien-to-me city and give it to a character stepping into an alien-to-us-all city. It meant I could take both everyday encounters and odd, once-off experiences and re-frame them to fit my fiction, grounding the otherworldly with something very real.

It turns out that “write what you know” isn't a restriction, it’s a tool. This seems obvious to me now, but that’s not how I originally interpreted the adage; I had to figure it out on my own. Learning to fully embrace this tool over the last few years is a huge part of what has made my writing finally start to click. It’s part of how—after two practice novels and nearly a decade of professional failure—I finally wrote a novel worthy of publication. My debut’s speculative premise—What if a woman is on a reality TV show when disaster strikes, and she convinces herself it’s all just part of the show?—could easily have gotten out of hand and tipped into totally farcical territory, but that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to play with perception and twist my main character’s sense of reality. To do that I needed to keep the novel grounded: I needed to incorporate what I knew. 

I’ve never been on a reality TV show. I've never hiked through a post-apocalyptic landscape or been attacked by a rabid animal. These are elements of the story that I can only imagine, but they are balanced by and supported with “write what you know” moments. These range from skills I learned on a two-week-long wilderness survival course to small character-informing experiences. For example, remembering how awkward I felt as a zoo docent holding up a rat in front of a room full of kids. I was as grossed out by the way its tail lay across my wrist as anyone, but it was my job to smile and explain how clean rats actually were. It was my job to assuage these kids’ irrational fears—and in order to do this I had to suppress my own. This was just one small experience I was able to modify and give to my main character in order to enrich and ground her, but it’s one I probably never could have made up without going through it myself.

Sometimes I wonder how my younger self would have reacted if “write what you know” had been explained to her not as a rule, but as a tool to ground and flavour imaginative works. Honestly, I don’t know if it would have made a difference. I don’t know if I had an open enough mind back then—and I certainly didn’t have the kind of useful experiences under my belt that I have now. But as fully as I rejected the adage back then, I embrace it now, and I would encourage all aspiring writers to do the same. I've figured out what “write what you know” means for me. It’s up to you to determine what it means to you.

Alexandra Oliva is a writer living in the Pacific West with her husband and dog who pretty much rules their lives. After earning a BA in History from Yale, Ali lived in Ireland and New York City where she received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School. While gathering rejection letters for two ‘practice novels,’ she had the idea for The Last One. Follow her on Twitter here