“Write what you know.”
It’s the first piece of advice anyone gives someone who is trying to write, and like so many pieces of common homespun wisdom, it’s kinda useless when you really start to think about it. The intent behind this, of course, is to urge writers to focus their energy on topics or stories with which they have a personal connection, which makes sense because that’s always the writing you’re going to be the most passionate about. But far too many people take the phrase literally, which is the reason as soon as someone says, “so the book is about a writer from Maine,” you don’t need to hear anything else to know that they’re talking about Stephen King.
The thing that makes King popular, though, is not that so many of his protagonists share his profession and home turf, but that so many of his protagonists ring true as characters, as real people, and smart-ass critics like the guy who wrote the preceding paragraph miss that all the time. King himself may never have been a prison guard like Paul Edgecomb (The Green Mile), a prison inmate like Andy Dufresne (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), or a retired Army special forces operative like Dale Barbara (Under the Dome), but the feelings and emotions that drive those characters are all things that anyone can relate to. Edgecomb is a guy who is forced to confront the fact that the job he’s about to do may not be right, Dufresne is an innocent man trapped in a system that doesn’t believe in him, Barbara is someone who just wants to leave his violent life in the past but is not allowed to do so. The core of his characters is realistic, and that’s what makes his work resonate with people.
If everyone took “write what you know” literally, there would be no science fiction in the world, no fantasy, and all the horror would be of the gruesome true crime subset. Other fiction, “literary” fiction (a term I’ve always found distasteful, as the intent seems to be to divide fiction into “the real stuff” and “everything else”) would still exist, but much of it would be unfathomably boring, because while it’s true that everyone is the hero of their own story, a large number of those stories left unadorned would be of little interest to anyone else. As much as all writers like to believe they’re Hemingway, basing their fiction on their two-fisted, hard-drinkin’ lifestyle, writing is often a very solitary craft, where you sit in a room with your instrument of choice (a computer, a typewriter, a hammer and chisel) and metaphorically slash your wrists and let it flow on to the page. If the only things that came out in my writing were from my actual life, there would be an awful lot of chapters of a character watching Star Trek and wondering if that new marshmallow Peep flavored Pepsi is any good, which is something my wife Erin assures me nobody wants to read about.
When someone is “writing what they know,” what they should be doing is mining their own experience to figure out what they have to say, then determining the most interesting way to say it. I’ll use myself as an example because I know how it works for me and because it gives me an excuse to plug my ongoing serial novel Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new chapter of which appears every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. (See, that’s literally writing what I know. Dull, isn’t it?) Little Stars is about a young woman whose mother is the world’s most beloved superhero, and about how her life gets turned upside-down when Mom’s secret identity is revealed to the world. Believe it or not, none of these are things that have ever happened to me. However, the core of the story is about a relationship between a mother and her child.
This is where the “true” comes from.
In 2017, two things happened to my family in a matter of ten days. First, my mother unexpectedly passed away, then my wife found out she was pregnant. This caused what I called at the time a tornado of emotion. Either one of these events is a cause for complete upheaval in a person’s life. Dealing with them both at once was a maelstrom that nobody could have prepared for, and my creative output was throttled as a result. It took some time before I could figure out how to write again, and even longer (summer of 2021) before anything I began writing gained any traction and grew into something lasting, specifically Little Stars. That said, once I started to get ideas again, I began to unintentionally follow a pattern. I’ve got two other partially-formed ideas that I intend to get around to when Little Stars is over: one is about a father whose children are taken by a mysterious force, and the other is about a pair of sisters who run away from their parents when they discover a secret about their late, beloved grandmother. (There’s a lot more going on in these stories, of course, I’m not just ripping off Taken, but these are the relevant parts.) I also wrote my annual Christmas stories, including a novella with a major subplot about a divorced dad reconnecting with his son and another Christmas short about a vampire hanging out with Santa Claus in an effort to get back to his daughter. I didn’t mean to do it, and I did it several times before I realized the pattern, but my work these days is very heavily focused on stories about parents and their children. And it would be pretty damn disingenuous if I didn’t admit that this is probably because I’m still trying to work through the emotion of losing a parent and becoming a parent almost at the same time.
But that’s okay, because that’s what “writing what you know” – if done correctly – is really good for. For the audience, art is entertainment or education. If you’re really good, like Jim Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney, it can be both. But for the artist, art is therapy. It’s how we choose to understand ourselves and try to make sense of a world that seems dead-set against making any sense on its own. The joke about Stephen King is that his stories are all about writers from Maine, but people forget about how many stories connect to other parts of his life: outcast children (It), issues from fatherhood (The Shining), or substance abuse problems (line up any of his books from the 80s and throw a dart). This is what great writers do. F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing about the world around him when he created The Great Gatsby. Mark Twain based the hometown of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on his own childhood. Stan Lee really got bitten by that radioactive spider that one time.
We’re so used to “write what you know” as a metaphor that when someone does it literally but does it really well, it’s a gut punch. For example, the movie The Big Sick was written by married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and it’s about a real-life incident in which Emily — very early in their relationship — fell into a coma due to a mysterious illness, creating an unexpected bond between Kumail and her family. It’s funny, deeply emotional, and a great showcase for Nanjiani as an actor. More importantly, though, it hit every nerve in my brain in a way I never could have anticipated.
As with any movie “based on a true story” there are elements added for drama or comedy or to make a more coherent story (real life is rarely that coherent), but you could tell while watching it how true and real the heart of that film is. It also happened to come out in the aforementioned 2017, a few months after my personal turmoil began, and I found myself sitting in a movie theater next to my pregnant wife weeping like a starving infant. Not because the movie was tragic (when the coma victim is one of the co-writers of the movie, you can’t go in expecting a Nicholas Sparks ending), but because at that moment it was delivering the message I needed: that the world is hard and chaotic and awful sometimes, but it’s still possible for things to turn out okay in the end. A movie that’s 100 percent fictional could have delivered the same message, of course, but knowing that much of it was true made it hit much, much harder.
The other film I want to talk about here, a more recent one, is The Fabelmans. Steven Spielberg is a polarizing figure – movie fans often consider him one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, whereas movie snobs dismiss his work because it’s popular, as though that somehow disqualifies it from being good. The Fabelmans is clearly his most personal story, a movie about a young man who uncovers a family secret that rips him apart, and how he uses movies and filmmaking to cope.
This one feels more “fictionalized” than The Big Sick, of course. Spielberg directs the film, but Nanjiani actually played himself, Spielberg didn’t use real names, and the decades of distance from the real events no doubt necessitated him conjuring up much of it out of whole cloth, but again, it’s a film with a real emotion in its soul. Reportedly, the relationship between Sam Fabelman’s parents is a reflection of Spielberg’s own, and if that’s true I have to applaud the man for his willingness to bleed on screen. The story that’s told is somewhat raw and heartbreaking, not the sort of family secret that many people could ever bring themselves to talk about, and yet he put it on a thousand movie screens and got a Best Picture nomination. Is it my favorite Spielberg movie? No. But I think it’s his most authentic, his most emotionally honest, and I truly love it for that. Plus the final scene of the film – based on a story that Spielberg has talked about in interviews in the past – is a lovely little way to cap off the story of a boy who had a rough time of it, winking just a little at the camera to assure the audience that he turned out okay in the end.
So for the writers out here, my message is not to write what you know. Write what’s real inside, what you’re really feeling, put it on the page. Dress it up however you want, of course, whether that means an alien or an undead slasher or a superhero or just a kid in Arizona, but figure out what’s real in that story. That’s what you share with us. That’s how you get to be great.
It’s easier to recognize greatness than achieve it, naturally, but I really am trying.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. How many times can he post that link before it’s considered gauche? Ah, who cares?