Should You Write What You Know? 31 Authors Weigh In
From Toni Morrison to William T. Vollman, an Age-Old Question Answered
Write what you know. Everyone who has ever taken a writing class or read a craft book has heard this piece of writing advice—even if only to have it instantly denounced. But which is it? Should you write what you know or shouldn’t you? Worry no more, aspiring writers: the agony of uncertainty is nearly at an end. Here I have collated answers on this very subject from thirty-one famous authors, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Ernest Hemingway to Kazuo Ishiguro. Pick one answer and go with it, or tally up the responses and heed the consensus. Whatever the answer, like all writing advice, it’s up to you to take it or leave it.
Nathan Englander: Write What You Know (Emotionally)
“I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . . [But] what it is is empathic advice; it’s advice about feeling. . . Why do we love those books [we love], why do they change us, why do they touch our hearts, why do they hold so much meaning? Because they are truer than truth; because there is a great knowing within them, and I think what’s behind “write what you know” is emotion. Like, have you known happiness? Have you ever been truly sad? Have you ever longed for something? And that’s the point, if you’ve longed for an Atari 2600, as I did when I was twelve, all I wanted was that game console, if you have felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for a lost love or for liberation of your country, or to reach Mars. That’s the idea: if you’ve known longing, then you can write longing. And that’s the knowing behind “write what you know.””
–from a video recorded for Big Think
Kazuo Ishiguro: Don’t Write What You Know
“”Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.”
–from an interview with ShortList
Paula Fox: What Do You Know, Anyway?
“There is a kind of central truth and if you get the central truth, and the motion of people, then the rest is implied. Henry James talks about this in The Art of Fiction. He writes about a woman writer he knew who ran up the stairs of a little French house in Paris, and on her way up she passed a room with a door open and inside there was a meeting going on of French Huguenots—this was in the nineteenth century—and they were smoking cigarettes and talking. She was only there for half a minute; she paused and then she went on. Two or three years later she wrote a book about the Huguenots, and everything in it, as Henry James said, was absolutely true. She just went from that one moment. Now, I was very careful not to tell my students to only write about what you know, because I couldn’t define what they knew. That’s where the question really begins. How to define what you know. And what she knew and sensed in that second was everything.”
–from a 2004 interview with The Paris Review
Ursula K. Le Guin: Write What You Know, But Remember You May Know Dragons
“As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of “know.”
The Brontes are a marvelous example of fictional knowledge, because they show so clearly the relative importance of imagination and experience. Patrick O’Brian is another. I don’t think he ever sailed in a three-master.”
–from “On Rules of Writing“
Bret Anthony Johnston: Don’t Write What You Know
“I teach an introductory fiction workshop at Harvard University, and on the first day of class I pass out a bullet-pointed list of things the students should try hard to avoid. . . . The last point is: Don’t Write What You Know. The idea panics them for two reasons. First, like all writers, the students have been encouraged, explicitly or implicitly, for as long as they can remember, to write what they know, so the prospect of abandoning that approach now is disorienting. Second, they know an awful lot. In recent workshops, my students have included Iraq War veterans, professional athletes, a minister, a circus clown, a woman with a pet miniature elephant, and gobs of certified geniuses. They are endlessly interesting people, their lives brimming with uniquely compelling experiences, and too often they believe those experiences are what equip them to be writers. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.”
–from the aptly titled essay “Don’t Write What You Know,” in the Atlantic
Zoë Heller: Write What You Really Know
“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl [after being told to write what I knew] was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources. The problem with my highwayman story, it seems safe to say, was that I had drawn on none of them. It didn’t necessarily matter that I had never robbed a stagecoach. But it did matter that I had not troubled myself to find out, or even partially imagine, anything about what robbing a stagecoach might entail.
The other, subtler error I made—and continued to make for a long time afterward—was to suppose that translating experiential knowledge into fiction was a simple, straightforward, even banal business. For most writers, it actually takes a lot of hard work and many false starts before they are in a position to extract what is most valuable and interesting from their autobiographies.
. . .
Most writers have, for reasons of diffidence, or snobbery, or fear of exposure. . . unconsciously censored themselves and thrown out the wheat, mistaking it for nonliterary chaff. In this sense, the reminder to write what you know—what you really know, as opposed to a slick, bowdlerized version of what you know—continues to be pertinent advice, not just for 11-year-old schoolgirls, but for writers of any age.”
–from the Bookends column in the New York Times
Mohsin Hamid: Write What You Know, But. . .
“It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.
In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.
A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.
Our bodies are complex biological machines. As long as they live, they create a story about themselves in order to function. We call this story the self. We believe in the reality of the story. We believe the story controls the machine. Yet we are constantly reminded that things are not so simple. We do things not in keeping with our stories, sometimes horrible things. And when we do, we say, “I wasn’t myself.”
Writing is a chance for the stories that are us to come to terms with their innate fiction. So write what you know. But also know you are being written.”
–from the Bookends column in the New York Times
Toni Morrison: You Don’t Know Anything
“I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.
When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.”
–from an interview with Rebecca Gross at the NEA Arts Magazine
Dan Brown: Write What You Want to Know
“A lot of people say “write what you know.” I feel like, it is so difficult to stay intellectually engaged for a year or two in a subject. You should write something that you need to go and learn about. Make the writing process a learning process for you. In Inferno, I learned so much about genetic engineering, so much about Dante, that I didn’t know. And my learning, through the process of the novel, through research and talking to specialists, was really what kept me motivated. So for a young author who says “I don’t know what to write about,” I’d say, what have you always wanted to know about? Go learn about it—if you want to know about it, probably someone else wants to know about it, and let your learning process be the catalyst for you to take other people on your learning process, through your novel.”
–from a 2014 CBS segment
Meg Wolitzer: Write What Obsesses You
“I just try to work on ideas that interest and perplex and absorb me. People say, “Write what you know,” but for me it’s more like, “Write what obsesses you.””
–from a 2017 interview with the Nashville Review
Maile Meloy: Don’t Only Write What You Know
“I think you have to find an emotional connection to the story, to make anyone else care about it, but I would find writing only what I know to be limiting. All of the stories you mention above came from fragments of things people told me—about pranks on the pager phones in a power plant, for example, or about inheritance in Argentina. I start with those details, which feel real, and seem promising, and start writing around them. I tend to write what seems like the emotional story between the characters first, and then check the parts I got wrong, and add more details later. I’ve been thinking about a novel lately that would require more advance research than anything I’ve done so far, and I don’t know how that process might change if I do it.”
–from a 2009 interview with Fiction Writers Review
Megan Abbott: Write What You Don’t Know
[What’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?]
“Write what you know.” That just makes no sense to me, it’s always been write what you don’t know. . . and want to know more about.
–from a 2014 interview at LitReactor
Harry Crews: Write What You Know Is Bull
“It’s true that a writer is told by a lot of stupid people, like English teachers, to write about what you know. But that’s bull. You write about murder, and you never killed anybody. You write about a woman, and you haven’t been a woman, and on and on. What English teachers mean, I hope, and they probably don’t, but what they should mean is that to write and write well you have to be on incredibly intimate terms with the manners of a people, the culture of a part of the country.”
–from a 1970s profile on Crews by Steve Oney entitled “Harry Crews is a stomp-down hard-core moralist” and reprinted in the Daily Beast
Avi: Write What You Feel
“I know students are always being told [to write what they know], but I always say that you should write what you feel–that’s stronger and a much better place for any writer to begin. The facts you can always find, and other things you can make up. Not long ago, I found the first notes I took for Catch You Later, Traitor, and to my astonishment I realized that in one way or another I worked on this book for eight years, and thought about it for a long time before that. It’s a long and difficult process to write about what you know, and during that process I had to keep pulling back from the facts of my own life and make the story more fiction. In 1951, you had to be very cautious about what you talked about. Even at my age now, I’m not comfortable talking about politics. That was bred into me. So that element presented another difficulty for me.”
–from a 2015 interview with PW
Richard Ford: Writing What You Don’t Know is the Writer’s Job
“First of all, I don’t think that a writer who writes about loss (if I do) needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That’s the writer’s job. We empathize, we project, we make much of what might be small experience. Hemingway (as usual, full of wind) said ‘only write about what you know’. But that can’t mean you should only write about what you yourself have done or experienced. A rule like that pointlessly straps the imagination, confines one’s curiosity, one’s capacity to empathize. After all, a novel (if it chooses) can cause a reader to experience sensation, emotion, to recognize behaviour that reader may never have seen before. The writer’ll have to be able to do that, too. Some subjects just cause what Katherine Anne Porter called a ‘commotion in the mind’. That commotion may or may not be a response to what we actually did on earth.”
–from an interview in Granta
William T. Vollmann: Write What You Know (Yourself)
“I guess you have to start by as Hemingway says, write about what you know, which is usually yourself. . . and trying to have as many experiences as you can and read as widely as you can so that you’re capable of creating different voices and knowing more.”
–from an interview with BookSlut
Paul Muldoon: Learn Something While Writing
“One of the big catch-cries is that you should write about what you know. But I think just as great a catch-cry is that one should write about what one doesn’t know. Which, after all, is pretty much everything. Recognition is an important thing—to write out of one’s own certainty, we understand that. The terrible fact is that if you know something, the chances are I know it, too. The idea, ideally, is to be open to the possibility that in the course of writing the poem, one will discover something, will learn something, something one did not know.
Do you think it’s possible to learn something in the middle of a poem?
Absolutely. If that’s not possible then there’s no point in doing it.”
–from a 2009 interview with Yale Literary Magazine
Lee Child: Write What You Feel
“I think [Write What You Know] is very bad advice. Very few people know enough to make an exciting story, and very few people can escape the clotted and overcrowded prose that usually results. But “Write what you feel” is good advice—if you’ve ever been scared or worried or angry or ecstatic, for instance, recall those feelings and blow them up to suit the exaggerated needs of your plot.”
–from an interview with UKAuthors
Philip Pullman: Don’t Write What You Know
“Some people would say “Always write about what you know”. I don’t think that’s good advice at all. Nor is the advice to write what you think people will like. I think that’s just silly. We shouldn’t bother about other people at all when we write. It’s none of their business what we write. How many people did we hear, in 1996 or thereabouts, saying “We wish someone would write the first Harry Potter book! No one’s written about Harry Potter yet. We wish they’d hurry up”? One of the reasons for JK Rowling’s success was that she didn’t give a fig for what people thought they wanted. They didn’t know they wanted Harry Potter till she wrote about him. That’s the proper way round.”
–from a 2011 interview with the Guardian
Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t Just Write What You Know
“There’s an aphorism in writing that says you should write about what you know, and if I’d followed that rather bad piece of advice, I never would have attempted to write in the voice of a slave. That’s not to say I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect—it would take me further out on the writing limb than I’d ever been. It probably wasn’t arbitrary that in Sarah’s first chapter, I have her announce a little slogan she creates for herself that helps her over the hurdles in her world: “If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.” I could only hope that writing the character of Hetty Handful Grimké was not some audacious erring.”
–from Kidd’s website
Gore Vidal: Writing What You Know is Not Literature
“Literature is supposed to be about merit, and there is nothing else that matters on earth. If you have values. Now, it’s always about somebody trying to get tenure in Ann Arbor, and his wife leaves him because of that au pair from England, and the child is autistic, and we have a lot of hospital scenes that are heartbreaking. And this goes on, and on, and on. I once had to judge the National Book Awards. There was no fiction in it—there was nothing. There was certainly no literature in it. It was just “write about what you know.” And what they knew wasn’t very much. At least with me you’ll find out who was Buchanan’s Vice President.”
–from a 2012 interview with LARB
P.D. James: Write What You Know
“You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”
–from “P.D. James’s 10 tips for writing novels” at BBC News
Raymond Carver: Writing What You Know is Dangerous
“Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets? But unless you’re a special kind of writer, and a very talented one, it’s dangerous to try and write volume after volume on The Story of My Life. A great danger, or at least a great temptation, for many writers is to become too autobiographical in their approach to their fiction. A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”
–from a 1983 interview with the Paris Review
Grace Paley: Write Into What You Don’t Know
“You really write from what you don’t know. You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.”
–from a 1986 interview with Kay Bonetti
Ken Kesey: What You Know is Dull
“One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull. Remember when you first wanted to be a writer? Eight or 10 years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viny jungles toward untold wonders? That’s what you wanted to write about, about what you didn’t know. So. What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”
–from “Remember This: Write What You Don’t Know,” published in 1989 in the New York Times
John Gardner: Write as If You Were a Camera
“Nothing is sillier than the creative writing teacher’s dictum “Write about what you know.” But whether you’re writing about people or dragons, your personal observation of how things happen in the world—how character reveals itself—can turn a dead scene into a vital one. Preliminary good advice might be: Write as if you were a movie camera. Get exactly what is there. All human beings see with astonishing accuracy, not that they can necessarily write it down.”
–from On Becoming a Novelist
Ernest Hemingway: Invent From What You Know.
“You throw it all away and invent from what you know. I should have said that sooner. That’s all there is to writing.”
–from “The Art of the Short Story“
William H. Gass: Don’t Write What You Know
“When I wrote In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, I thought, I’m spending too much time making sure that it’s not about anything in my life, because I think that’s very important to get straight. Too many writers write about their lives. It’s easier, and it’s seductive, and it can be catastrophic. “It happened to me, and therefore it must be interesting.” You know, that’s sort of awful.”
–from a 2011 interview published in Tin House
Jillian Weise: Write What Costs You Something
“Maybe what teachers mean when they say [write what you know] is don’t write about the fields of sea lilies stretching for hundreds of yards across the ocean floor if you are not an oceanographer. I say go ahead & write your sea lily poem. The worst thing that can happen is it’s a bad poem. The best thing that can happen is you are the next Hilda Doolittle.
I was told to write poems that cost me something to write them. They cost me a lot. Too much? I’m still carrying ones and zeros on the budget. I go to poems looking for heart. You can tell when a poet has put a lot of heart into the poem and you can tell when they left it out. Some of them favor brain. But for me, all brain is no ache but headache.”
–from an interview at Writer’s Digest
John Banville: Don’t Write What You Know
“I had always felt that this advice about “write about what you know” was bad advice. I always felt that you should risk.”
–from an interview with The Elegant Variation
Tom Perrotta: Write What Means Something to You
“I’m always wary of any kind of generalization like [write what you know]. . . I think somebody once said, there are two kinds of writers: there’s somebody who leaves home and somebody who stays home. And I’ve always been the kind of writer that stayed home, but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s going to work for everybody. I think you have to do a lot of reading and you have to do a lot of writing, and if you are lucky you’ll eventually find a voice or find a subject matter that you’re passionate about. That to me is really the crucial thing, somehow having your work connect with your obsessions and your passions. . . . I’d rather challenge people to figure out a way to get their work to connect with what really means something to them, however they’re going to do it. It doesn’t always mean writing about what you know, but it means writing about something in a way that’s going to get you to use your best and most troubling material.”
–from an interview with Big Think