Your Creative Writing Teacher Was Wrong

12 Feb

Write what you know Mark Twain courtesy of Bing images

This is probably one of the first things you will ever hear out of a writing teacher’s mouth. (This, and “Show, don’t tell.”) It is also probably the most terrible quote in the history of literary instruction.

This is because people take it literally.

One main agreement by many authors is that when you actually get down to writing a story or piece of writing is that you should only write about what you actually have experienced or know about. Nick Sanders

Of course, if you were Mark Twain – living in a slave state during the Civil War, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi – then maybe this would work. But when your life is comprised of classes, homework, a boring job, marital spats, paying bills and/or changing diapers, just the thought about writing what you know could put you to sleep.

There are only three reasons anyone would support taking the saying “Write what you know” literally:

1) They want it to be easy. Don’t want to waste your time doing research? Don’t have good resources? Got an approaching deadline? No problem! Just write what you know! Instant material with minimum effort!

2) They want to play it safe. We’ve all been at that place: “Was cotton an everyday fabric in the Wild West? Could you actually jump over a motion-detecting laser without setting off the alarm? Would someone from the 1970s use the phrase ‘Yo dawg’?” You’re not sure. You are sure, however, that your readers will catch the little gaps in your knowledge and POOF! your credibility will be out the window. Better stick to writing what you know.

3) They are missing the point. Yes, writing what you know might convince readers of your authenticity, sell you as an authority on a subject, and make your book believable (all this, of course, so long as you avoid boring everyone to death). But that’s not the point of writing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writing is for self-expression and personal fulfillment. Anything that follows – publication, money, a devout audience – is just a bonus.

I don’t know about you, but I write to escape the monotony of my everyday life. The last thing I want is to bring that monotony onto the page. I want to know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Fly an airplane. Train-hop. Shoot a crossbow. See a ghost. I have never done any of these things. Nor do I necessarily have previous, similar experiences from which I can draw.

“Writing what you know” is kind of like saying: “Go on an adventure – but just don’t leave the block, ok?” I’m writing what I don’t know. And that’s the whole point.

Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last  instructor who has uttered the words “Write what you know” is confined to a  labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad , how much combat do you think he saw?P. J. O’Rourke

Don’t write what you know—what you know may bore you, and thus bore your readers. Write about what interests you—and interests you deeply—and your readers will catch fire at your words. Valerie Sherwood


Posted by on February 12, 2013 in Writing


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4 responses to “Your Creative Writing Teacher Was Wrong

  1. Sheila

    February 12, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Yes, it’s much more fun to use our imagination and that’s probably one of the main reasons we love to write anyway!

  2. ab4

    February 12, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    This is the best!
    I absolutely love how you understand about being sure that every reader will notice every mistake. Thank you so much for pointing that out, as it helped me realize it’s really just a silly little trap….
    A couple other thoughts:
    You’re definitely right that escaping to another world is an upside of writing. There are even some personality theorists who hypothesized that the driving force behind personality and behavior is the need for mental stimulation (oh my gosh- my theories of personality class actually came in handy! This is the first time that’s happened, unless you count the time when I used the textbook as a paperweight…) Thus, in that way, writing and reading have a similar motivation and the writer and reader can be on the same page in terms of what they want out of a story, which has to be good.
    But if you can stand to spend your writing time still focusing on your humdrum life, that can be a good thing, too. Situations like that do have the potential to be good literary material, because you can write about the inner as well as the outer life, and (as we as writers know) some people with seemingly dull existences are very passionate and vivid inside. (It’s even been postulated that some accountants occasionally experience emotions! 😉 Because of this discrepancy, really amazing books have been written about monotonous lives. I hazard a guess that even Mark Twain himself found his own life tedious much of the time and would have flown off to Aladdin’s cave on a magic carpet if he could.
    There are even stories that focus specifically on boredom. The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road come to mind- I don’t think I’ve ever read or seen any stories that better capture the suffocation of ennui. However, when it comes to the author, it must suck to be them!- to have to spend so many hours stuck in the torturously boring worlds of those stories… Ugh, I can’t imagine it. Maybe that’s why I’m always so determined to have my characters escape to freedom. I’m pretty sure I’ll stick to writing about places and times and situations I find interesting. Other people can write about homework and paying bills 😉
    On another note, I submit that writing is not just about self-expression or personal fulfillment (the creative rush is nice, but I can also get it by listening to music at night or even get into a similar, pleasantly relaxed frame of mind by playing tetris, which is honestly much less trouble). I also agree that it’s not about artistic glory or fame or money (ha!) No, there’s something else. For my part, I write because I hope to add a little bit of happiness or inspiration (or in the case of my comedic attempts, laughter) into someone’s life, or raise social awareness, or maybe even guide them in the right direction with a thought-provoking statement. As soon as I’ve done any of those to the slightest degree, I’ve succeeded. And the more the better. That’s all that matters in the end. That for me is what makes writing a better use of my time than, say, playing internet games or just napping or scarfing down ice cream 24/7, which are fun but obviously don’t benefit anyone other than myself.
    Knowing this even helped me understand why I sometimes choose creative pursuits over spending time with my family (something I had to figure out after some changes in my life recently). I had to be able to prove to myself I wasn’t a selfish jerk who was ignoring my family for the sake of greed or ambition, which I was able to confirm once I realized the above. It also helps me keep going even when the creativity wears off and writing isn’t fun.

    Other benefits include the usefulness of writing skills in pretty much any academic or professional or even social setting (good word skills help lead to better conversational skills and being able to express your thoughts more clearly, which helps people understand you better 🙂

    • arsepoetica19

      February 13, 2013 at 3:40 am

      Oh, I am by no means saying that writing does not serve a multitude of other purposes. And yes, indeed, we write to inspire and bring joy to our readers. (But isn’t that in itself a kind of self-fulfillment?)
      What I am getting at with that motto is that when something one practices or one has been taught gets in the way of writing being a fulfilling and enjoyable task, it is probably best to check and make sure that it isn’t wrong in some way.
      Thank you for your thorough critique and comment, ab4, I appreciate it!

  3. ab4

    February 12, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Oh the above also explains why I chose writing over art or photography or singing- I felt (and feel) writing is the most direct way to communicate to people what I want to express.


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