Writing What You Know

This post is not going to be about the new HBO show Girls because that’s the last thing this world needs. But I suppose I should it some credit for today’s post because it relates to what I’ve been thinking about, writing-wise, lately. “Write What You Know” is a maxim taken straight out of Writing 101, but I think it’s been getting abused.

I’ve long been an advocate of writing what you know, and I’ve written about it before (way back in 2009) when I discussed a young writer, Nick McDonell, who wrote his acclaimed novel Twelve when he was seventeen. Like Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, McDonell is from a privileged New York upbringing and used his limited worldview to his advantage (he’s now 28 and has three published novels with protagonists that aged along with him). The similarities between McDonell and Dunham end there, and I actually feel guilty even putting them in the same sentence.

What Nick did that Lena doesn’t is that he drew from what he knew rather than recreated it. In Dunham’s 2010 movie Tiny Furniture, she writes about a college graduate who moves back in with her mother, an artist (like her real-life mother), and deals with being a post-Gen X twenty-something. Girls is not much different. The situations she and her friends get into are very specific to being an educated twenty-something in post-recession America who consciously ignore the huge safety net beneath them.

Some will relate to this, others won’t. For me, it was beside the point. What it came down to was “was I interested in this story?” and the answer was no. Then (always relating back to writing), I said to myself, “this is why I’m not excited about New Adult.”

I’ve spoken about New Adult before and why I don’t think it’s marketable yet. Even so, I still get queries for it, even if they don’t label it that. Many college and just-graduated writers send me “literary fiction” that seem remarkably similar to their bios. Write What You Know is what they were taught in all of their creative writing classes, so this is no surprise. What bothers me about what writing programs have been churning out is that they don’t seem to be showing the writers how to use what they know and still create an interesting story.

When you don’t have much life experience, writing what you know should be what you write. It’s a great starting off point. But the trend I’m seeing with young writers is a literal interpretation. If every aspect of your storytelling is a mirror of your personal experience, you risk alienating readers who don’t have your exact background.

I get a lot of submissions for literary fiction from young writers who compare their work to The Graduate, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Bright Lights Big City, and then when I request them I quickly realize that they are lacking in one major area: a standalone story arc that could be enjoyed by a larger audience. Writers should use what they know to enhance their stories, not diminish them.

Take The Graduate. An older woman seduces a younger man. What if that man was 33 instead of 23? We would have had a very different experience watching it. What makes The Graduate such a funny, poignant story is the fact that Ben is younger than “young.” He’s internally struggling with all of these New Adult things when – bam! – a plot line hits him.

I suppose it’s ironic that YA has had more time to mature than New Adult, and – after a rocky start – has found a way to make itself relevant in the marketplace. The reason why it was able to become relevant, I think, goes back to Write What You Know. No matter how authentic the voice, YA comes with an adult perspective. While there are exceptions, most YA is written by adults. They use what they know about growing up to capture the essence of being a teen without getting consumed by it, allowing for non-teen readers to appreciate the actual story.

New Adult, however, remains exclusive. Their stories tend to ask “doesn’t it suck being 22?” or “isn’t it great being 22?” and leaves outside readers saying, “yes, but what is your point?” There’s also a theme – not just in my submissions, but in various “Gen Y” pop culture I’m seeing – of the main character being self-aware of his or her role as a twenty-something. The writers usually seem pleased with themselves for being so astute. Gen X set the precedent for “the listless twenty-something,” and now Gen Y is using it to wink at their audience and roll their eyes at themselves. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. But – and this is important – 

Being self-aware is not the same as having perspective.

For the same reason the best memoirs aren’t about events that happened a month ago, knowing you’re in a certain situation and being able to objectively assess that situation are two different things. That’s why instead of getting the next Bret Easton Ellis, we’re getting people who reference the fact they’ve read Bret Easton Ellis and hope their audience reads between the lines. 

Self-awareness vs. perspective is a distinction that many young writers are failing to grasp, at least from what I’ve seen in my submission pile. It’s also, I believe, why many Gen Y writers take Write What You Know so literally. They don’t yet realize what they’re writing isn’t universal. This doesn’t make them wrong or shallow or bad writers (on the contrary, I’ve turned down far too many talented writers solely because their stories weren’t developed enough). It just means they need more distance from the thing they are writing about in order to get their point across.

(Note: I realize I am generalizing a bit, so let me reiterate that there are very talented young writers who do get it right. And trust me, when they do get it right, it is brilliant and often leaves me seething with jealousy.)

I know I’ve picked a little too much on young people in this post, but that’s only because of the types of submissions I’ve been getting lately (and, ya know, Girls didn’t exactly disprove my theory). But “real” adults – you are guilty of this too. When you draw on what you know about falling in love, getting divorced, burying a parent, or having your character “find themselves” on some journey, be careful that you don’t cast yourself in their role unless you’ve gained the necessary perspective about it. Understand that your audience might look and think and act differently than you, so don’t expect your personal story to translate the way you want it to without the appropriate context. Like all good writing, it’s not always about making your reader like, relate to, or even understand your character all the time. But you do need to make them care.

10 thoughts on “Writing What You Know

  1. 🙂 This was how I felt in my college writing classes. Where were the stories? Sure there was a lot of angsty young people thinking back on failed relationships with interesting metaphors, but nothing happened. I was writing angsty new-adult stuff about mafia assassins. I still think that my stuff was more awesome than everyone else's. 🙂


  2. It seems like “New Adult” is a label being used by some of your querying writers who have semi-autobiographical stories in which nothing much happens.

    Just put a big red header on your query instructions page asking people to stop sending you boring stuff! 🙂


  3. Great blog post! I've noticed that writing suggestions based on books that have succeeded often take on a life of their own in the age of the Internet, to the point where the suggestion is eventually interpreted as a rule that must be obeyed, without any real understanding of what the suggestion actually meant. “Write what you know,” “show don't tell,” etc. are examples. A few years ago, “never write in first person” was repeated over and over again in online writers' groups. Then, suddenly, numerous YA books written in first person were wildly successful, and recommendations began appearing on the Internet to “write in first person if you're writing YA.” Following extremely strict rules about writing that are frequently violated by successful writers reminds me of trying to create artwork by using a Paint by Numbers kit.


  4. I agree wholeheartedly. It's not just what you know, it's what you do with it. It's how you use it to write creatively, to be creative, to explore characters and motivations, to play with various “what if's”, to appeal to more than your clones.
    I admit that as a retired person, I do have a lot of life to draw on, and hopefully it helps (and shows) in my writing, but I also see young writers producing some great stuff from their relatively short list of experiences.


  5. I definitely think I write my adult characters (“New Adult” age range and older) a lot better and more realistically now that I'm an adult myself. I'm really embarrassed at how, in the far past, many times my adult characters talked and acted like they were still teenagers, while their young kids acted and talked like they were at least 30 years old. You can't really write a character of a certain age convincingly and authentically until you've been there and done that, and gotten enough distance to have a certain amount of reflection on that stage of your life.


  6. I think in many ways it really is perspective that allows you to 'write what you know,' or to at least write it in a way that rings true with a majority of readers. Because it's perspective that allows us to see how our experiences (i.e., what we know) fit into the wider world. And it's not something that you only get with age. There are plenty of young writers with perspective, and plenty of old ones without.


  7. Distance and perspective are very hard. I'm knee deep in a story that's very close to me, and this has been a very helpful reminder to be careful about not making the story be my experience. Thank you.


  8. When I was in my early 20's, I took a writing class with Scott Russell Sanders. He told me, “You need more perspective before you try to write this story. Go out and live more of your life.” I was devastated. But, he was right, and now, 20 years later, I am able to tell that same story in two different ways–one as a YA contemporary romance, and the other as a memoir in flash pieces. There is a distance and vision on the story that never could have happened in my 20's.


  9. Jaimie, I have to respectfully disagree. It's true, some people just don't have a natural storytelling ability, but perspective is something that can only come with maturity. As a former writing student, particularly of memoir, I've seen how brilliant a story can become just by seeing the writer approach it from a different angle. There are so many talented writers out there who just need a little more time to figure out what they're trying to say.


  10. I think you're missing what makes YA relevant. It's not that authors have uniquely captured the teenage experience in a way they've been unable to capture the new adult experience. It's that loads of stories are “coming of age,” and that happens when you're 16 or 17 or 18 historically. It's not that YA has had time to mature. It's that YA has always been around, just not under the name “YA.” (And not in this quantity either, but I would argue the abundance of YA writers is more attributable to the internet than the sudden relevancy of a genre.)

    I know that's one tiny aspect of your post; sorry to sound belligerent; totally just my take; etc.

    To respond to the overall post, maybe you're giving bad writers more credit than they're due. To me, capturing the right narrative perspective is something you can't learn, something innate in a good storyteller. When someone takes writing advice like “write what you know” literally, I tend to think maybe art is not their thing. Instincts are so important in writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s