It’s an adage spouted at us so often that it has almost lost its meaning in the repetition: “write what you know.” Draw from your own life experiences in order to lend heightened realism to your work. I have mixed feelings about this, especially as a young writer – primarily because I feel like in the context of the adage, I just don’t “know” all that much. Does it mean I’m a bad writer because I don’t have a lifetime of experience to apply to my work? I like to think that it doesn’t.
I have never been anything more than a student. I lived in the same house in a rural area for my entire life, until I moved into my college dorm. I’ve spent less than a month of my life in cities, and that’s if you accumulate all the hours and days together. I’ve never been in a long-term romantic relationship.
And yet, some of my characters have lived in the city, have dated people for a year or more, and have careers. How is it possible that I only used what I know and still managed to create characters with lives so different from my own? Obviously, the answer lies partly with imagination and partly with research, but it also lies with my personal writing philosophy. I believe that some aspects of life translate across multiple experiences of the world.
What do I mean by that? I mean that “knowledge” isn’t the sum of my limited experiences. I may not have relationship experience, but I have long-lasting friendships with aspects that could be linked to romantic relationships, in the effort and the ups and downs. I also have friends who deal with relationship problems all the time and share them with me.
The emotional states that are tied to their problems and to my own transcend the specific details of the issue at hand. As a writer, then, I can use the root emotions to convey something that I may not personally have experienced in a manner that is still realistic.
Using what you know isn’t just about using your own experiences. If it was, everything we read would be autobiographical. Rather, it’s using your experiences as a starting point – as a seed that you allow to germinate into something beyond yourself.