Write what you didn’t know you knew

calvin-and-hobbes-write-what-you-know1

Used with no permission what-so-never! ©Andrews McMeel Universal

This is not an original sentiment, but it has been needling me lately, so I’m going to let it out.

“Write what you know” is misunderstood. People think that means that they can only write literally about their limited sphere of experience: that if they have never left America they can’t write about world-traveling spies. But I don’t think it refers to technical aspects. I think it refers to themes and relationships. I doubt George Lucas had personal experience with telekinetic space knights, but he did seem to know a thing or two about hope. I don’t think J.K. Rowling actually attended a secret wizarding school, but she does seem to have insider information on the importance of friendship and perseverance.

What do you know about? Woodworking? Bureaucracy? Ceramics? That’s nice, but it’s inessential. You can research those things. You can understand them pretty well without experiencing them. And you can freely invent space ships and elves – you don’t have to experience them at all.

So what else do you know know? What have you experienced or witnessed that you can really expound upon, that can be your theme? Poverty? Betrayal? Second chances? I know about being eccentric, about learning to improve oneself the hard way, about making mistakes, about being wracked by anxiety, about surviving depression. These are things I can dig into and live in for a whole book. I can say much more interesting things about these themes than I could by rattling off my technical knowledge of the behind scenes work of building public parks or even the sounds and smells of beekeeping.

What have you done in your life? (Or what has been done to you?) Look at your resume, think back over your life. Maybe you haven’t had a sweeping romance or a brush with crime or a death in the family. Maybe all you’ve had is a job at McDonald’s. Dude, you can still use that. Transform the people around you. The night shift manager that magically motivates everyone to give a damn in the face of the unending onslaught of drunk and otherwise shitty customers? That person can be your Gandalf, your Dumbledore, your Obi-wan. The petty little shit who shifts blame and weasels out of work and thinks they’re too good? That’s your book’s Draco Malfoy. Walter Mitty your life. (I don’t mean you should fall in with spies – I mean your should recast the people around you into fantasies.)

Do the same to your experiences and relationships. Remember that time you were mistaken for a local celebrity or wanted criminal? It’s a funny anecdote now, but really remember it. Remember the thrill? The terror? Remember imagining how cool (or burdensome) it would be to be that weather guy for real? Remember wondering how you were going to get out of going to jail when your phone and wallet were locked in your car so you couldn’t prove you weren’t the robber? That’s at least enough for a short story. Transform your close bond with your dog into a boy and his dragon or a girl and her assassin-bot. Fictionalize that comedy of errors from last year’s drunken thanksgiving into a Medieval farce. Get pretend space revenge on an alien version of that boss who sabotaged you to keep you from getting promoted.

You can research or invent places and technology and worlds and customs and just about everything. But Wikipedia can’t grant you substantive, nuanced insight into the human condition. You have to be like Star Trek’s Data: consult the ship’s computer whenever you can and for the rest of it – the interactions, the feelings, the relationships – you just have to throw yourself in and live.

— Amanda

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