Why writing what you know is harder than you think

If you’ve swirled around the drama world for any length of time, you’ll have encountered the maxim “Write what you know”. It’s generally sound advice, when paired with “learn what you don’t know”. I think at its worst it can lead to a person valuing verisimilitude in writing over skill, but that’s for another post – for now, I just want to consider what it’s like to write what you know.

In my brief writing career, I’ve found the most personal stories, the ones I “know”, are the one for which a first draft comes pretty quickly. You don’t need to work out an intricate structure, the characters are near fully formed, plenty of you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments to hand. If you’ve slammed your head on many a desk trying to work out some intricate plotting, drafts like that are a total dream.

But the ease of this process fools you into thinking that you’re writing, but most of the time you’re not. You’re probably just chronicling without craft or shaping. Subsequently, though they need it the most, I’ve found that these same scripts are the hardest to rewrite. The main problem is that the material is so close to you, you’ll be loathe to change something even if its better for the work. Events will seem “right” because they’re true but that doesn’t mean they’re the most dramatically potent. Amongst all this, you’ll spend months wrestling with intention. Why? Because to figure out how to get the story working, you kinda need to figure yourself out. It’s not enough to take something from inside you, you need to know to what end you’re employing it. This doesn’t need to be made explicit in the text of course, but it’ll guide how you shape the thing. Maybe you have a clear idea of what you want to say already but if you’re anything like me you spend a good deal of your time thinking about why you did that stupid thing you did.

I think that’s why though writing what you know can be tough work, the reward is a gift: a slightly better understanding of yourself. Those moments of revelation seem harder to come by as you get older and can turn your whole life around. Could make you more accepting of others, might end up with you rejecting society for a blasted Mid-Atlantic rock.

A risk worth taking, says I.

4 thoughts on “Why writing what you know is harder than you think

    • For sure! I often justify my lack of holiday’s by saying Austen didn’t need to see the world to write well. Milton’s description of Satan as an island is one of my fav images.

      Guillermo Arriaga, writer of Babel, says much the same too. Didn’t visit anywhere to write what he did in that film, but figures people are basically the same the world over. Generally I like to write things that require me to find out more about something I know a little about.

  1. Bang on the money here, Vin. Been trying to write “what I know” for years for a novel… managed to get through the first draft easily enough, but the drafting and re-write has been a nightmare. Given me something to consider there, cheers. Keep up the good work.

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