(Don’t) Write What You Know
Jan 10, 2017
By Chelsea Hansen, Colorado Review Associate Editor
Every writer has heard that infamous phrase: “Write what you know.” And, like me, most writers have probably railed against it. I first heard this when I was nineteen and in my first-ever workshop. My professor at the time had gone off on an unintended rant on the subject.
“If we only wrote what we knew, then everything would be nonfiction,” she had said. I loved this quote so much that I wrote it on my folder. As a new writer fresh off the “maybe I actually want to try writing seriously”-train, I had zero intentions to write “what I knew.” Writing was exciting to me because it wasn’t about my life. I come from a small, actual middle-of-nowhere town in Wyoming named Rawlins. I was convinced there was nothing—absolutely nothing—about my town or own self that would lend itself to the fiction I wanted to write. I wrote about characters with whom I shared no physical or personality traits, settings to which I’ve never been, and used elements that have never happened to me in real life because they don’t exist at all. I scoffed at this “write what you know” notion. Did the people who tout that really believe that Stephen King had a very, very messed-up life? Or that Tolkien did not live among humans, but rather some other world that was full of orcs and hobbits and no technology?
Eventually, though, I wrote myself into a corner. I was so intent on writing only about things I hadn’t experienced or that didn’t actually exist that I thought I couldn’t write about anything related to me at all. I started to worry about what I was writing before I even wrote it; somehow I needed to make a character who had insecurities, but not too many because I had insecurities and the character couldn’t reflect me. I didn’t want to write about me. I wrote to experience and create new things, so I reasoned with myself that this meant everything I wrote must be the opposite of me.
I had a meeting with one of my writing professors near the end of my bachelor’s degree. I’d just turned in my final portfolio for workshop and she wanted to talk about the future revision of my stories. One story in my portfolio was about a man in China who lived in a very small township, and another concerned a teenage boy being interviewed after his best friend drowned on a cruise ship. Neither of these things had happened to me, of course. I confessed to my professor that I was having trouble with my stories and trying to keep myself out of them.
“Why don’t you write about you?” she asked. I gave her the answer that I gave everyone when they asked why I didn’t write about Wyoming or my small town or even my time working at a theme park in Florida. These things seemed boring to me because I’d already experienced them myself. And if they were boring to me, how could I make them interesting to someone else?
My professor did not accept this as a good reason. She asked about my childhood. I told her that I grew up a normal girl with a normal middle-class life in a small town in the least populated state, where nothing of note ever happens. “But don’t you see? That’s interesting,” she said.
I went through my short story folder after that and considered what she’d said. She’d encouraged me to try, just a few pages, of writing a story set in Rawlins. I examined the characters I’d created when I was just starting out writing in college, and the ones from the last year of my degree. There were several differences between them. The characters I’d written more recently had traits or thoughts taken from myself hidden within them. The characters did not share things like my favorite food or pastimes, but rather some of the anxieties I carry through life. The Chinese man’s story reflected my anxieties about the difficulties of acceptance. The teenage boy giving a television interview represented my worries about being the center of attention. These characters were far more rounded and complex than my earlier ones. They were not representations of myself, but they did represent parts of me for which I was subconsciously trying to find relief by writing them into fictional people.
Gradually I stopped worrying so much about my characters mirroring me or my life. I started taking situations and experiences that happened to me and inserting them into my stories. I also paid attention to the fiction I read and how reflected the authors’ lives. I picked up on scenes in my cohorts’ work that I knew had been inspired by their own experiences. I stopped fighting it as much. When a mysterious woman appeared late one night on my father’s camera doorbell, I wrote the scene out exactly as it happened, and spun off a fictional story from it. If I felt discontented about the state of the world, I allowed a character to feel it too. Sometimes they came to different conclusions than I did. Other times, we agreed.
I’ve learned that beautiful fiction can come straight from reality and will not suffer for it. I often wonder how much of a story is influenced by true events when I read a strong submission to the Colorado Review, but the answer doesn’t truly matter. A good story will still be a good story whether it reflects the author’s self or doesn’t contain any of them at all. But really, writers are in all their stories somewhere, even if they attempt to completely separate themselves from it. The hints may be little, or it might be the entire story, but every story I write has a piece of me in it somewhere. Sometimes my characters are completely different people from me, but I cannot truly create a story without having the tinge of my life and experiences on top of it. The exact same story idea could be given to me and someone else, and we would write completely different things. That’s the beauty of fiction and reality: they work and combine and crash together to create something wrought with emotion, thought, and empathy.
A friend from New York City once told me that he’d always wanted to write something set in New York, but nothing was working like he envisioned it. That is, until he met another author who told him, “In order to write about New York, you must leave New York.” He did, and came here to Colorado. He has since written about New York with much more success. Despite my new acceptance of letting my life influence my writing, I have yet to write a story set in Rawlins. I recently finished a beginning draft of a story set in Wyoming, but I haven’t gotten myself to type “Rawlins” yet. I just need the right story to come along.