It may be advice often given to writers, but is the idea to “write what you know” always understood, and valuable for creating good work?
In his post “Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever., Jason Gots comments that writer Nathan Englander “says that ‘write what you know’ is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of advice, ever.
“It paralyzes aspiring authors into thinking that authenticity in fiction means thinly veiled autobiography. If you’re a drunken, brawling adventurer, like Hemingway, no problem.
“But Englander, who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Hempstead, New York, says he spent a lot of his childhood watching TV, playing videogames, and dreaming about being a writer. Was he required to write about the Atari 2600?”
“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”
The image above is from the post “Write What You Know” Does Not Mean What You Think It Does, by Icy Sedgwick, who says, “Don’t take it so literally – I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t have to go to Middle Earth, and JK Rowling never went to Hogwarts! The fundamental fact is that what you know is humanity, and how the world works, and human nature is fundamentally the same.”
Diablo Cody has written successfully about human nature; her script for “Juno” earned her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. She also wrote screenplays for “Young Adult” and “Jennifer’s Body” among other movies.
Cody has commented, “I never intended my work as a springboard to anything else. I write because I’m addicted to it. It’s my confessional.”
From my Inner Writer post Writing Honestly – Diablo Cody on Being Confessional and Totally Candid.
Tony Kushner on the writing process
A Creativity Post article comments that Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner “thinks rehashing events from your life can be just plain lazy writing.
“The resulting work ends up condescending to the audience, and boring you—the writer— because you’re just going over information you already had. However, this doesn’t mean you should completely ignore your experiences.
“Your writing should reveal things about yourself you didn’t know before you put your pen to paper (or your hands to the keyboard). Rather than just recycle popular themes like ‘it’s okay to be gay’, dig deeper into the subject and find that unknown tension or truth that will surprise both you and your audience.”
Kushner says: “Part of the exciting thing about being a writer in any medium is that if you start to dig around in there and use words and the muscular activity of writing, you discover things inside of yourself, people inside of yourself, knowledge inside of yourself that you didn’t know you had.”
The post continues, “The best writing is usually a journey into the unknown for both the author and the audience, and, according to Kushner, no one is conscious enough of their own interior to know what choices they may or may not make before they begin to write. This discovery process, it turns out, can also be therapeutic for the writer.”
From post Should You Write What You Know?, by THNKR [a YouTube channel].
Video: Tony Kushner’s Unexpected Writer Advice
Tony Kushner’s plays include Angels in America.
Journaling as therapy
Psychotherapist Daniel Mackler speaks about the values of journaling: “Writing down the truth of your feelings, your point of view, your fears, your angers, your hopes, your expectations, your desires, your fantasies, your hatreds, your regrets, your thoughts, your memories, your prejudices, your secret loves, your painful experiences, your humiliations, your past traumas – requires massive intimacy with yourself. This self-intimacy is the essence of good therapy, and yet is also what makes good therapy so difficult.”
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Last reviewed: 3 Jan 2013