If that isn’t the most overused, cliched, nearly useless piece of advice given to upcoming writers, I’m sure it’s a close second. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a worse one. But still, it’s valuable and more than a little misunderstood.
I remember when I was younger and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage. I guess I’m dating myself here. I was in the back room of our old house, banging out a story about the Turtle gang on an old typewriter. It wasn’t even electric, it was one of those that needed a sledgehammer to depress the keys. I would type, one sore finger at a time, thunk thunk, then curse word as I had to break out the white-out again.
I never finished that manuscript, which was fine. I was having a great time writing, creating a story, and it was all just for me. The fun was in the act, and much like I do today, I made it up as I went along.
Now, I don’t know if I’m getting this memory confused with another one, but eventually (obviously, it was a long time ago), I gave one of these incomplete stories to my mom. As much as it was just for me, I still wanted positive feedback like any young child.
Skip ahead a bit, my mom had a friend that was a writer. Like any with the preconceived notion of the romantic isolation and torture a writer goes through, this blew my mind. The piece of advice given by my mom’s friend:
Write what you know.
What the hell did I know about being a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?
It didn’t make sense.
I carried that with me, like most do when they hear something when they’re young. You know it’s wrong, but it was imprinted on you from such an early age, it was hard to discount. Even when I decided to try my hand at screenwriting, I still took those woeful words of wisdom with me. The first script I tried to write was about a bunch of teenagers, because that’s what I knew.
But surely it wasn’t a Ninja Turtle that wrote that movie. Surely, people didn’t really go into Outer Space and get attacked by aliens. But with the cognitive dissonance that’s prevalent within youth, I kept both ideas in my head.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, but for some reason while I was laying in bed, the idea of that ridiculous notion came to me. Yes, write what you know, but it’s not what you think it is.
It’s about living.
It’s about experiences.
It’s about life.
Maybe it should be called, Live to Write. I don’t know, it’s not as catchy I guess. But that’s the secret.
Experience heartbreak, sacrifice, turmoil, joy. Experience love, the butterflies of anticipation, or the dread of going outside your comfort zone. Experience comfort and fear. Experience pain and satisfaction and victory and defeat.
Experience life. Do the things you don’t want to do. Do new things that make you feel alive as well as doing nothing while you just think. Contemplate the things you’ve gone through and how they’ve made you the person you are today.
Experience these things so you can write realistically about fictional characters and their plights, indecisions, morals, and motivations. Imagination is a great thing, but living is the best exercise one can do to write better fiction.
Writing is about more than sitting in front of a typewriter, clunking away with one sore finger at a time. Writing is about living. It’s about experiences.
Living is experiences.
You are the sum of those experiences, everything good and bad that’s ever happened to you has shaped who you are today.
I can recall memories and feelings from twenty years ago that had no significant effect on me at the time, only to be calling upon that gained knowledge now. Something so insignificant at the time, like finding twenty bucks on the sidewalk, or a dismissal said by someone you no longer remember, is used and important to what you do now.
Everything that you’ve experienced or thought about make you who you are today. So go out and get them. Experience everything life has to offer so then you can write about them.
You need them to understand your own characters – what they want, how they go about getting it, the decisions they make and why, what they’ll do under certain burdens.
You may not know what it’s like to work in an oil field, or erecting a building, but you can imagine what it’s like from other experiences you’ve had. You can know about isolation or the way your body creaks and burns under the strain of manual labor. You can know exhaustion and satisfaction from a hard day’s work. You can know the camaraderie of being in the company of others all working toward the same goal, and you can know the feeling of being backstabbed by someone you thought was your friend.
Everything you experience can be useful.
Write what you know. You have a lifetime of experience to draw from once you get to living.