The Famous “Write What You Know” Rule? It’s Literary Bullshit

Every time I hear the write what you know rule, I think about J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien led a quiet, ordinary life: Sunday mass, lectures at Oxford’s Pembroke College, lunch at home, afternoon tea, and some gardening—as boring as a wet day spent watching The Hobbit. Tolkien rarely traveled and almost never went abroad. Now, imagine if Tolkien had followed the rule to write what you know. Instead of The Lord of the Rings, he would have probably written a dull story about an old professor who chokes on his English tea.

The write what you know rule is literary BS. Oh yes, I feel better now.

But I’m sure that the experts mean well. Write what you know is better than saying Go on a hill during a stormy night and pray to the gods for the instructions on how to write the masterpiece of the 21st century.

They do mean well. Yet, I believe that this advice can be misleading. It suggests, for example, that if you’re a lawyer, you can only write about trials and rich people who steal money, or if you are a scientist, you can only write about a mad biologist who clones sheep.

Write what you know encourages you to stay in your writing comfort zone, pushes you to write uninteresting autobiography-like stories (like the one that Tolkien would have written), and kills your imagination.

“Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I have heard

Kazuo Ishiguro

How can we not agree with our friend Kazuo? He is the 2017 Nobel Prize-winning British novelist!

Many other writers have had their diverging say on the write what you know rule:

  • Write What You Know (Emotionally) – What Do You Know, Anyway?
  • Don’t Write What You Know – Don’t Just Write What You Know
  • You Don’t Know Anything – Writing What You Know is Not Literature
  • Writing What You Know is Dangerous

Oh Man, I am confused now. What shall I do?

Wait! I may have a solution.

Be the master of illusion

After my novel Zagreb was published, I did many readings and presentations. Man, I enjoyed that time.

At these events, readers asked questions like: Have you really been fighting in a war? Are you a real soldier? Have you really seen those places during the war?

And If you’re wondering too… No, I don’t really know how to use a weapon (never shot one!), how to kill people, or to save them. I pretended I do. Although I have never been in a war, I know what’s like to be hungry or scared, and I certainly can remember a time when I have felt lost or invincible.

Your novel doesn’t have to be real. It has to feel real.

How to become the master of illusion?

Keep writing, no matter what.

Write from within. 

Write about whatever you want.

Do you want to write about a man who invents a time machine and goes back to the future, to the year 24.345? Do it! Do you want to write about a scientist who discovers the universal law of nature? Do it!

Write so that the reader feels like you know about time travel, mathematics, or anything you want to write about. Be quasi-real.

How do you do that?

Like Charlie Parker does.

 

Replace instrument with writing and practice with research. You will get something like:

  1. Learn your writing
  2. Research
  3. Research
  4. Research
  5. Forget all of that
  6. And… Be the master of illusion

Research, surprise surprise!, is the keyword.

So, instead of write what you know…

Know what you write

Let’s say that you are writing that story about the man who invents a time machine and goes back to the year 24.345.

Now you need to read and study everything that is related to time travel.

Perhaps start with some easy scientific books or novels that treat the same topic and that you find inspiring. Watch documentaries and movies. Pick the most precious details and, with those in your mind and in your heart, write.

Spread those precious details on every page. Be generous.

During the rewriting phase, these details will be watered down, and eventually, your fictional story will hopefully stand on a solid foundation of reality.

The stronger the foundation of reality, the more daring your novel can be.

With Zagreb, I first wrote the fictional core — No information whatsoever about the real war. Then I studied books, watched documentaries, I interviewed many people who had experienced the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia. I recorded the most precious details — a water tower, a girl with a blue dress, a famous café, a description of an iconic photo — and with those in mind and heart, I rewrote Zagreb many times with the goal of placing the story in historical reality.

Your goal is to know the reality of your story inside and out and to feel its essence so that your characters can be fully immersed in a quasi-real world — credible to the reader.

Final Thought

As Vladimir Nabokov famously said: Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver […]

Every great writer is a master of illusion.

— WRITTEN IN MIAMI

The “boring tea” cover photo was taken during my trip to Panama.
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