It is some of the oldest in the book on writing. Write what you know. Or, occasionally, Write what you don’t know you know. In fact, this advice is so ubiquitous that it is often derided and ignored as being too simplistic. I’m here today to argue that it is the most difficult and heartbreaking writing advice you can follow.
Here are some things I know:
- the word ‘nickname’ comes to English via misdivision (original phrase was an ekename, or an earned name)
- the quadratic equation
- how to count to ten (and only ten!) in seven different languages
- the difference between an epidural and a spinal block
- that central Oklahoma gets more tornadoes per square mile than any other place on Earth
- Venus is tectonically active, but Mars has more of a magnetosphere
- the difference between leukocytes and eosinophils
Here are some other things I know:
- the feeling of betrayal after taking bad advice
- the thrill of driving for twelve hours and finally catching that one supercell
- the grief that comes with knowing you could very likely be dying
- the terror that comes with not knowing if your child will survive the night
- how it feels to cry happy tears
- what a suicide attempt feels like
When #thatguyinyourMFA asks the obnoxious and obvious question about ‘Well, what do I know?’, the advice refers to the second set of data, not the first. The first set is knowledge and facts; the second is emotions, and emotions are the spinal cord of story. Sure, Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN uses facts and numbers, like how many calories a human needs per day, how long it takes for light to travel between the Sun and Mars, and what the average temperature is during the night on Mars. But the force that keeps the readers reading is, ‘Will Mark Watney make it back to Earth or will he succumb to the loneliness and the siren call of suicide?’
There’s a third set of data is one that I find personally the most fascinating as a reader: self-knowledge (and its attendant narrative style, “Unreliable Narration”). If emotions are the spinal cord of story, then self-knowledge is the white matter overseeing the whole operation. It’s the heart that makes the reader give a damn what happens next.
For example, here is a thing I know about myself:
I am not an inherently nice person. I am very much invested in the idea of ‘what you give is what you get.’ I also am a big fan of neither forgetting nor forgiving transgressions, because, in general, people are quicker to say ‘I’m sorry’ than they are to try to change their hurtful behaviour. This means that, as a character in the novel called Life, I’m the one who’s happy to be helpful and friendly to people upon first meeting them, until they do something to hurt me or someone I love, and then all bets are off. My memory is as long as a Monday after a three-day weekend.
What this means, practically and characteristically, is that when I learn about an ex who is failing to live his best life (by his own standards), and who is having trouble with depression, I don’t try to hide my dearth of fucks given, the way I would if I heard of similar circumstances with an acquaintance. Because, as I said, my memory is long and my compassion is hard to come by:
I remember the night he charged into my bathroom while I was taking a bath, the way he screamed that I was responsible for his failing out of college, the way he punched himself in the face because ‘the only way I’d take him seriously is if he were bleeding’; I remember the times he refused to listen to me say “No”, as in, “No, I can’t talk about this right now, I need time to think, please give me some space, you’re making me nervous”; I remember the thousands of dollars he ‘borrowed’ – between rent and utilities and phone bills and tuition – that he was always just about to pay back, and which somehow never materialised; I remember the petty mind games, designed to punish me for being ‘heartless’ and ‘cruel’ and so very tired.
Ordinarily, learning someone that I once loved has fallen on hard times, is living with his grandmother, and is generally down in the gutter, would elicit a sense of pity in me. But when I remember him the way he was when no one he respected could see him, I can only feel a deep sense of schadenfreude.
Because even though I know I’m not a nice person naturally, I don’t really want to think that about myself like that. Nobody ever wants to admit that sort of thing where other people might hear it. And so I lie to myself and I lie to everyone around me, and I say that I’m nice, but just a bit awkward, and that I have no patience for either fools or assholes, and that the people whose suffering I celebrate deserve it because they were Bad and I am Good.
It leaves everyone involved wondering who has actually won, and what did they win?
The advice is to ‘write what you know,’ but there’s the opposite side of the coin, the more pertinent aspect of writing in general, which is seldom acknowledged: show your soft underbelly. Yes, write the facts and the quantifiable data, and yes, write the emotions , even the silly or embarrassing or commonplace ones.
But what you, and only you, really know is the dark, unrelatable aspects of who you are as a human being. That is the heart of your story. That is what you must tear out and display to the world, before consuming it to learn its power: your shameful secrets and horrifying desires, your most vicious beliefs and most steadfast neuroses.
This deep knowledge of self, combined with raw emotions and hard facts, creates a story that feels real because it is real. As real and painful and messy as childbirth.
Write what you know, far from being useless, cliched advice, is the most devastating act you can commit, because ultimately, what you know and what will destroy you are one in the same.