Write What You Know

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve been fortunate to have a career writing and teaching fiction. I love fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it (sometimes), and most of all, I love watching a new writing student’s fire ignite with the passion for his or her own fiction.

This is why I am annoyed by one of the biggest truths and biggest lies that circulate and recirculate around the writing world—academic and otherwise—which is “write what you know.” I am annoyed because it is misunderstood.

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If I took this advice on its face value, I would write about a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married with children, average income, average height, average experiences. I make dinner, I keep house, I do the laundry, I go into my home office and write. I can’t imagine anything more boring to write about than my life.

This is not to say that my life is boring; far from it. But it would not make good fiction.

There are other things that I know about, and they require a broader, deeper investigation of the advice to “write what you know.” I know about love. I know about the first blush of a crush, I know the deep and abiding knowledge of another person for whom I would gladly give my life. I know about loss. I know the chest-crushing experience of grief and the periodic waves of it that have rendered me unable to move. I know joy, and anger, and frustration to the breaking point. I know anxiety, stress, and responsibility far beyond my ability to be the adult-in-charge. I know about betrayal and infidelity. I know paralyzing fear. I know soaring, thrilling triumph and how to put it all into perspective.

This is what I know, and this is what I write about. And because I write about these things, I can write from the point of view of a man, or an alien, or in a place I’ve never lived, in a time far before or after my limited lifespan. That is the imaginative, tale-telling aspect of fiction.

While many people would resonate with trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, my readers deeply resonate with my portrayal and reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Or the face-slap of a dear friend’s betrayal. These are the things I know that you know. These are the things that you can and should write about, because fiction is about adding your voice to the chorus.

Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Your voice is important, and you must speak your truth. Not about choosing where to buy your produce, but how you reacted to the major upheavals in your life. Your voice is unique. It adds depth to the choir.

Write boldly. Write courageously. Write what you know.