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On Writing What You Know: You’re Not Too Boring to Tell a Story

Yesterday I told the story of my second novel…again. I’m well aware that I’ve talked about that book several times around here (and I’m certain I will again). In fact, the last time I mentioned it previously, I described it like this:

The Poet Alexander is basically the 180,000-word story of my adolescence, chronicling my experience getting a first job, falling in love (and dealing with all the drama of high school romance), and navigating the treacherous social undercurrents of a tight-knit church youth group.

In other words, it’s probably not something you want to read. But I wrote it under the guise of a fantasy novel, so I spent considerable time developing the setting, figuring out the tangled political dynamics of the town, and creating interesting fantasy parallels for the tedious real-world obstacles I dealt with throughout those tumultuous years.


That second paragraph starts with eight words of self-sabotage that are probably terribly familiar to you, no matter where you are in your writing career. “It’s probably not something you want to read.”

I don’t say things like that much about the stuff I’m writing these days, but I still feel it. I’ve shared my newest book with three people in the last week, and ended up telling each of them that they didn’t need to feel obligated to read it. Every one of them had expressly asked for the copy, though.

As artists, we’re all terrible at judging the quality of our own work. Just awful. That can cut both ways — we’re always hearing references to the atrocities that form the majority of the dreaded slush pile — but most everyone I’ve ever worked with has seriously, viciously undervalued their own quality. I’m absolutely certain I do the same thing.

The thing is…that’s not a writer habit, or an artist habit. It’s a people habit. We all spend way too much of our time reminding ourselves how uninteresting we really are.

And then a creative writing teacher comes along and tells us, “Write what you know!” And we just want to scoff. Or maybe cry. If we’re stuck writing what we know, and what we know is this pathetic, boring life we’re living, what hope is there in our fiction?


Last week Bryce left a comment on Courtney’s article complimenting her and me both for our parable-ing — the talent we’ve shown for taking stories from our lives and making lessons out of them. We do it every week, and every week it works.

Why? Because people connect to people. People connect to other lives. People crave stories, and the stories that ring truest create the strongest connections. People want to hear a genuine voice in all the noise, and the easiest way for you to achieve that is to speak in a voice rich with the sounds of your life. They’re the truest sounds you know.

When Courtney and I are telling parables, it’s simple and straightforward. I go back to a memory somewhere in my past, summon as much of the scene as I can, and then tell it as clearly as possible. It’s writing what I know, in a real and direct way.

Writing What You Know

That’s not really what the advice is about, though. When a creative writing teacher tells you to write what you mean (me included), it’s talking about something other than memoir. Here’s a couple examples.

  • I write what I know when I make the bumbling half-philosopher/half-programmer in Gods Tomorrow bark out pseudo-code that closely resembles Python.
  • I write what I know when I borrow the floor plan of my college apartment for the setting of the first half of Sleeping Kings: Golden Age.
  • I write what I know when I show the kids in King Jason’s War playing on a huge, flat-topped boulder that bears a mysterious resemblance to the one I recently mentioned playing on when I was twelve.

That’s a sci-fi novel, a post-apocalyptic suspense/thriller, and a high fantasy novel, and each one of them has strong elements from my boring, everyday, 20th-century life.  Those are the kinds of touches that bring the fantastic and the distant close to hand, though. Those are the kinds of touches that ground your story in reality, and let you connect with readers.

I’m going to talk more about it tomorrow. So come back then for a look at how to write what you know, with some helpful specifics thrown in for good measure.

One Response to “On Writing What You Know: You’re Not Too Boring to Tell a Story”

  1. Josh Vogt says:

    They say writers tend to be schizophrenic by nature, flipping between thinking our writing is pure genius or that it’s pure…well…crap. We also seem to heighten the experience as we feed our internal editor who constantly points out our mistakes during drafts and revisions, each one another reason we should just give up.

    Personally, I don’t think the Write What You Know advice is incredibly valid, unless we’re talking non-fiction, or you really redefine what you “know.” Does knowing mean I have personal experience with something? That I’ve studied it for years? Can I only include a secret agent in a story unless I know exactly what it’s like to be a secret agent? What then happens to genres like fantasy and science fiction, which detail many impossible, potentially un-knowable creatures and places?

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