Should You Write What You Know?

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Synopsis

"Write what you know" is one of the most popular and most misleading pieces of advice that writers hear. But what does that really mean?

One of the great writing adages is write what you know.  Knowing your subject personally gives you the unique advantage of being able to accurately depict the world of your characters without having to do research, or worry that your voice or setting will read as false.  Someone who has to research a topic or story might be able to fake it, but will still inevitably be missing the life experiences that you might have.  For example, John Grisham, a lawyer, has made a highly successful career writing basically nothing but courtroom dramas.  The same goes for other well-known writers like Ian Fleming, author of the Bond series, who was a former spy.

But according to the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, rehashing events from your life can be just plain lazy writing.  The resulting work ends up condescending to the audience, and boring you—the writer— because you’re just going over information you already had.  However, this doesn’t mean you should completely ignore your experiences.  Your writing should reveal things about yourself you didn’t know before you put your pen to paper (or your hands to the keyboard).  Rather than just recycle popular themes like ‘it’s okay to be gay’, dig deeper into the subject and find that unknown tension or truth that will surprise both you and your audience.  As Kushner says: “Part of the exciting thing about being a writer in any medium is that if you start to dig around in there and use words and the muscular activity of writing, you discover things inside of yourself, people inside of yourself, knowledge inside of yourself that you didn’t know you had.

The best writing is usually a journey into the unknown for both the author and the audience, and, according to Kushner, no one is conscious enough of their own interior to know what choices they may or may not make before they begin to write.  This discovery process, it turns out, can also be therapeutic for the writer.  For years, researchers have noted a connection between stress and disease.  A team led by Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen has recently found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response.  Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research shows for the first time that the effects of psychological stress on the body's ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.  However, recent research has found that those suffering from stress can mitigate the risk by putting their anxiety and past pain and suffering into words.  A study by Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas found that most people feel happier and healthier after writing about deeply traumatic memories. 

There’s an oft-cited anecdote about the writer Kurt Vonnegut that nicely sums up this philosophy on writing.  From Steve Almond’s article “Why Talk Therapy is on the Wane and Writing Workshops are on the Rise”: “A few months before the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s life, a fan asked him to identify his central topic.  As the author of 14 wildly inventive novels, Vonnegut might have cited the perils of technology or the corrosive effects of wealth or the moral tolls of war.  Instead, he said this: ‘I write again and again about my family.’”

Tags: on writing, tony kushner

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