The Caveats of Writing What You Know

This essay written by Wayman Stewart.

Fiction writers are constantly searching for inspiration. There are times when, as a writer, your creative energy might feel dried up, elusive, inaccessible. In these times, many writers turn to a familiar old mantra for comfort: write what you know.

It basically means that your personal experiences are the richest sources of your creativity as a writer and that you should channel them into your stories.

Many writers follow this mantra with an almost religious fervor, while some writers might harbor a certain disdainful, detached attitude toward “autobiographical fiction”. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron. How can you experience the full breadth of your imagination if you remain focused on your own life and experiences?

To these writers, roman a clef writing (which is when a writer creates a fictional story that is based on their own life, with changed character names and some embellishments here and there) is self-absorbed and self-dramatizing.

Those on this side of the fence do have a point. Relying too much on your own personal experiences can limit, block, or even deaden the imagination. After all, everyone’s only lived so much, no matter how old they are or how dramatic their life may have been. Because of this, using yourself has the main focus of your creative process can also become extremely repetitive and downright dull, if taken too far.

Writers, like all other artists, should feed off of the human condition. Human nature should be your primary inspiration, which is something that you, as the writer, are a part of.

This means you can use yourself in the work. But no writer should use themselves as the absolute center of their creative process. This total self-involvement will stand in the way of the empathy and observation of other individuals that all great writers must possess.

When a writer’s ego (i.e., their self) is too involved in the work, it can also make it difficult to achieve the objectivity that a writer needs in order to mold their story to greatness.

When you are dissecting a character that you identify with too much, then you will feel as if you are dissecting and judging yourself. This clouds your judgment, making you see this character and his or her experiences in whatever light in which you see yourself (and none of us can ever see ourselves with true objectivity).

However, a writer should not avoid putting their life into their work, either. In many ways, they can’t. It happens on an unconscious level. While you might not have intentionally set out to write a story about yourself, if you really look closely, you can observe bits and pieces of your own self and experiences in the characters you create and the stories you tell.

As a fiction writer myself, this has happened to me on a regular basis. What I write is usually a reflection of something occurring in my life at the time and I often don’t even realize this.

Creativity does come from the unconscious and our imagination is anything but objective. It is completely subjective, containing all of our fears, insecurities, and traumas, as well as our greatest hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

Without meaning to, we infuse our characters with our own strengths and weaknesses.

We place them in situations that reflect our deepest fantasies as well as our worst nightmares. It is by doing this that we develop our empathy as writers. We then realize how universal these qualities are. These people we give life to on paper are us. Their pain is our pain and their joy is our joy.

I think this is probably the true meaning of “write what you know.” Not limiting ourselves by creating from our own selves or life experiences. We use these things to expand ourselves, creating characters and stories that may appear different from us and things we’ve been through but are anything but.

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Wayman Stewart is a freelance writer. He is a former contributor to the men’s lifestyle website The Global Playbook. Wayman is also a creative writer and actor. He writes screenplays and stage plays in his spare time and has plans to self-produce his latest one.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Karen – Vidalia_11

4 Replies to “The Caveats of Writing What You Know”

  1. An interesting perspective on this sage-old advice. Writing is a game of trust with the author. Trusting that you will and can write something with relevance to readers other than yourself. But you must tap into something. What you know is a way to prime the pump, but I agree with you, Wayman, it’s a portal, an entry into more dimensions. Without dimension – flat story.

  2. Hi, Loretta

    Yes, your story will definitely fall flat if you make it all about you. It’s no different than having a conversation with someone else, but incessantly thinking of yourself and speaking about yourself and not really being interested in them. It’s just boring.

    No one’s totally free of self-absorption. We all have our moments (to varying degrees, of course). But, being able to step outside yourself and be just as interested, if not more, in another person’s perspective is what allows you to truly and deeply connect with others. If that’s true in conversation, then it’s true in writing, because it’s all about communication.

  3. Writing begins with the author and does not end with the author. It flows. Writing comes from the author but it is not about the author. Even a biography is not really about the author. It is always about the audience.

    We use our personal stories and experiences because they are the shortest distance to others.

    Jef Menguin

    1. Hi, Jef

      All great points. The personal can easily become universal, but too much focus on the personal can really narrow a writer’s range. But, yes, our personal material is often what’s most easily inspiring, at the same time.

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