Write what you know

I’ve been writing a lot about honesty in writing, and I want to elaborate on a few things. I don’t really mean that everyone needs to confess every sin and write like the sun’s going to explode tomorrow, but I think every writer has a passion for certain subjects and that they should be true to that passion.

In my case, I’ve always wanted to write very personally, even in my fiction. I don’t want to die feeling like nobody really knew me. I also love the craft and want to use it well. For a long time, however, I tried to write personally about myself without actually writing anything personal. It wasn’t satisfying for me, it wasn’t particularly compelling to readers. Then I died, and woke up.

Now I write exactly what I want to write, I don’t write anything I don’t feel. I write about dark things and beautiful things, romance and suicide. I write what I know, and it resonates with people, unlike the muddled garbage I used to write. I don’t try to appeal to everyone, because I know that I can’t. Christian right-wing moms probably don’t dig me, and that is absolutely fine.

If you love unicorns and rainbows, write the Hell out of them. If you think God’s a sadistic son of a bitch, write it. Write your passion, write what you know.

18 comments on “Write what you know

  1. Larry says:

    Don’t know if writing an autobiographical novel about teaching and the inanity I witness daily would make for a cathartic exercise. Then again, I suppose trying to explain in novel form why central office people tell teachers that “lectures are bad!” ought to make for an amusing farce for some.

  2. I love unicorns and rainbows, but every time I try to write about them, one of two things happens: (1) I throw up a lot or (2) A giant flying bear named Mord swoops down, tearing the rainbow, and mauls the unicorn.


  3. Jeff: I have the EXACT same problem, except my bear is a turtle named Kurt.

  4. KJ Bishop says:

    I think I mumbled something in “The New Weird” about not liking the prescriptive use of “should” for writers. I’ve written with and without passion, and I wouldn’t say that the results of the latter are worse. Then, sometimes, the passion isn’t storyable, to use John Clute’s word. Then there are passions that are overwhelming — that can possess your writing life, which is not necessarily a good thing. I do believe fine books and stories can be written out of intellectual or playful interest in a subject. Though I have to admit that I find writing with passion riding shotgun more fun than writing without, and easier to stick with because of that.

  5. Larry says:

    Well Jeff and Michael, after reading your exchange, I found just the video for you to indulge your mutual love of rainbows and galloping quadrupeds.

    If I remember correctly, there should be a tie-in licensing arrangement for writing novels based on this.

  6. Michael: Your micro fiction “Suicide Party” was the equivalent of unicorns and rainbows to me. If that makes any difference. Know what I’m sayin? Resonance, my friend. It’s all about Resonance.

    PS: Friend and fellow writer Berrien Henderson was talking about rainbow-farting unicorns the other day, which prompted this thought — if you rounded up every unicorn (you know, concentration camp style), and fed them all Beano, would there _be no_ rainbows? Huh? Tell me. LMFAO!

  7. I have to agree with KJ. I am not sure the passion is all it’s cut out to be. For me personally, I find that writing about what I don’t know tends to work as well as writing about what I know. In the sense that some things I know so well, I don’t think I can write about them. Maybe that is why I tend to write about barbers, faucet workes and men with large chins. They are so apart from my reality that I can give full play to the imagination.

  8. KJ: It’s definitely a tricky subject. I mean, I know writers who don’t write what they really know, or want. They end up getting frustrated, they end up not writing anything. I also don’t think that intellectual and playful interests are necessarily exclusive from passion. I totally agree that some things just aren’t storyable, and you have to know when to drop an idea.

    Larry: Nice!

    Ennis: Maybe?

  9. Ennis: So, you didn’t like my little party? :-p

  10. The ‘write what you know’ maxim doesn’t hit my radar in terms of my own writing. Well, I’m sure it *does*, but not consciously. If I wrote what I knew and stuck with it, all my yarns would involve alcoholic writers, stumbling about in a haze of Absinthe, causing mischief and whatnot. Writing familiar/intimate things don’t really engage my creative side, I ‘spose. The joy of writing, for me, is discovering the unknown.

    I kinda get where KJ’s coming from — when I write by the seat of my pants, I often feel that white hot fire and it’s almost like a dopamine rush/runner’s high. And I’m usually left with a beautiful mess to clean up/edit afterwards. The stories that I approach with a workmanlike attitude aren’t nearly as fun to write, but they tend to be much more structurally sound (albeit lacking that certain ‘zing’).

    Also, an aside — the whole ‘writing as catharsis’ stuff just ain’t my thang. If I need to exorcise demons, I’ll go see a shrink, AA meeting, call a psychic hotline, go to church (ugh).

    Or watch Charlie the Unicorn go to Candy Mountain — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5im0Ssyyus

  11. Michael: Dude, I fucking loved it. I’m actually composing an e-mail about it. ; ) Best micro-fiction I’ve ever read. Did the word Resonance (yeah, proper, that’s right) come out of my mouth earlier?

    I can see the Chuck influence in that piece, btw. In the arrangement, the structure.

  12. Jay: I think psychics and church are equally useful.

    Ennis: Oh, thanks! I was definitely influenced by Palahniuk, but also Cat Valente and Michael Cisco.

  13. KJ: Amen. My writing has been set back, I estimate, seven years by the drag put on it by would-be editors who insist this use of began or that use of which revealed the weakness and inferiority of a work. As if a few knotty trees ruined the forest.

    I am actively trying to get over these hangs up and make it to the end of larger works now. By actively I mean chopping away, every day, at the vines and briars that seem to regrow around my legs during the night. I mean every day I’ve got to unlearn some should’ve I was taught for the sake of appeasing some handsy would-be editor.

    It’s hard to write what you know when you’ve been taught that everyone else knows better.

  14. Will: That’s kind of the point that I can’t seem to articulate properly, write what you want, whatever YOU want. If you feel like writing something you don’t know offhand, research it and go for it. There’s a certain passion inherent in writing, or else we wouldn’t do it at all.

  15. KJ Bishop says:

    Michael: that makes sense. As I was going to say before my phone line got cut off today, writing’s such a personal thing that I think you can only do what works for you — and what works at the time, too. We’re all wired so differently, and have different needs at different stages, etc.

    I’m pretty stubborn about dropping ideas, if I really love the characters. I feel that I’m letting them down terribly if I don’t keep trying to find the right vehicle for them.

    Will: More power to your machete.

  16. KJ: Exactly, everyone has a different process, different things that drive us. I totally didn’t mean to imply that every writer should write with the same method. I just think that it’s important to write what you really want to write, the process is up to the writer.

    I also didn’t mean to imply that a writer couldn’t research something completely unknown and write it. I was trying to say that a writer shouldn’t be afraid write to what they really want to write.

  17. KJ Bishop says:

    Michael: Dude, I didn’t think you were implying that :-) Sorry if I had too much of a knee-jerk reaction to the world “should”.

    Sometimes I’ll be writing something I don’t care much about, and mysteriously I start to feel for the characters and the work. The love sneaks up on me like a sly old lothario, or a cat that creeps into the room and winds itself around my leg.

  18. It’s hard to write about something that exists but you don’t know. “And then he pushed the red button thath usually do that thing…”. You get the idea.
    Other thing is to write about something that does not exist, or something that exist but you thing it should be diferent. I like that.

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