June 12th, 2019

A Fresh Look At "Writing What You Know"

by Barbara Linn Probst

Before I became a writer, I taught students who were getting advanced degrees in clinical social work. One of the questions that always came up was whether a clinician could effectively counsel someone if she didn’t share their experience. Did a clinician have the ability—or the right—to presume that she could help someone struggling with issues that she couldn’t understand “from the inside,” such as domestic violence, anorexia, or racial discrimination?

There are arguments to support both answers to that question. On the one hand, there’s the addiction recovery model, which is based on the idea that “those who’ve been there” are in the best position to help. On the other hand, as I would point out to my students, did that mean that I—as a white, urban, female, baby boomer—had to limit my clinical practice to people exactly like me? That didn’t sound right. It implied a world of stereotypes and separation that contradicted everything I believed in.

The answer that I found most useful, over the years, was based on two complementary principles. First, acknowledge what you don’t understand. Ask and learn. “Tell me what it’s like for you.” Respect the client as the expert on her own life.

And second, excavate what you do understand, even if it’s not evident at first. As I told my students: “I might not know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed because my father is incarcerated. But I do know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed. Something in my life has made me feel that way. It doesn’t matter what it is, specifically, as long as I can dig down and connect with those feelings. They’re human feelings, and we all have them.”

It’s exactly the same with writing. But the principles require a bit of translation.

We’ve all heard the injunction to “write what you know.” That’s like the idea that a therapist will do her best work with people whose experience most closely resembles her own.

And we’ve all heard the counter-arguments. If we were limited to writing what we know, directly, then a female writer could have no male characters. There would be no fantasy or historical fiction. That’s obviously not what the injunction is meant to connote. Taking it that way is far too restrictive.

However, there’s another pitfall to the notion that we must turn to our own experience as source material for our writing. You might say that it’s not restrictive enough. That is, it requires a caveat or two.

“Write what you know” does not mean you should turn your own life into fiction—or, more subtly, use writing for personal catharsis. My first (terrible) manuscript did just that, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was drawing on my own painful experiences, ostensibly because that was the material I could write about most authentically, but actually because I still needed to work through them.

In other words, I was writing about my experience, rather than writing from my experience—from the human truths I’d come to understand. Those truths can deepen a story. They can tell me, if I listen, what my characters might feel and do, even if I’ve never been part of their world.

We’ve all been swept into the world of a story, knowing that the author herself wasn’t a member of the French resistance or part of an orphan train. Certainly, the author did extensive research so the external details would be accurate. But no doubt she did “internal research” too, tapping into the human emotions that transcend time and place.

In short: My own experience can guide how I render the story. But it should not guide how I structure the plot.

Ask yourself: Are you writing about your experience or from your experience? How can you tell?  Here are some guidelines that can help.

  • Can you imagine people you know asking if a character in your book is “really” you or “really” someone you both know? 
  • Do you believe that no one else could truly tell this story?
  • Visualize your novel as a memoir. Would it work equally well?
  • Do you feel deeply connected with your protagonist’s struggle, despite the ways in which you differ?
  • As you were writing, did you feel as if you knew, intuitively, what your protagonist would say or do—even though you’ve never been in her shoes? 
  • Did the passages of interiority come more naturally to you, while you were writing, than the external events of the plot?

If you answered “yes” to the first three questions, you may be writing about your experience.

If you answered “yes” to the last three, you may be writing from your experience. It’s not always so clear-cut, of course—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with semi-autobiographical writing, as long as you do it purposefully and call it by its proper name. 

One of my writing teachers, the wise and generous Sandra Scofield, told me recently: “There’s no harvest so bountiful as one’s own pain.” The image of a harvest is a good one, I think. The pain—whatever struggle, loss, shame, rage, and despair one has experienced—can be fertile soil.  The crop doesn’t consist of quasi-autobiographical accounts of that pain. It’s whatever you, as a writer, can bring to life from the mysterious combination of soil, light, water, and air.

It’s a delicate, two-step process. First, we take what is personal, particular to us, and search for its universal essence. Then we take that universal essence and embed it in a new particular—a character, an event, a fictional world.

That’s the miracle of writing.

What about you? 

Is there something from your own life that has enriched a story you’ve written? Are there dangers, as well as benefits, of drawing on one’s own experience?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her forthcoming novels (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself.  Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.

Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

30 responses to “A Fresh Look At "Writing What You Know"”

  1. Carol Cronin says:

    Thanks for the great post. The next time someone asks me where I get my ideas, I'll try to do justice to the thought that fiction is " whatever you, as a writer, can bring to life from the mysterious combination of soil, light, water, and air."

    • Thanks, Carol! Writing IS one of those organic processes, isn't it? A combination of elements that are always around us, yet come together in ever-new and mysterious ways! Glad my post was useful and inspiring to you!

  2. Barbara I adore this fresh take on what I would have considered a tired subject—but this post is jam-packed with wisdom. It's a keeper! Your point that we write "from" our experience is probably why Dani Shapiro once wrote that her fiction leaves her feeling more naked and exposed than her memoir does.

    Of course you know that I have written about my personal experience in The Far End of Happy, so I'm well aware of of the pitfalls in doing so (those pitfalls informed an entire conference session I teach on the matter). But I would like to believe that the book strikes a chord with readers because the greater achievement was in writing from deep within my experience, melding relatable human emotions with the bones of the suicide standoff plot in a way that arrived at the story I wanted to tell.

    At least that's now what I'll be telling myself. 😉 Thanks for this great insight, brought forward from deep within your own experience!

    • Praise from you, Kathryn, is praise indeed! You are a model for what I would call transformative writing—taking one's deepest experience and raising it to the level that all readers can relate to. And I love the Dani Shapiro quote! Thank you so much for your comments!

    • Praise from you, Kathryn, is praise indeed! You are a model for what I would call transformative writing—taking one's deepest experience and raising it to the level that all readers can relate to. And I love the Dani Shapiro quote! Thank you so much for your comments!

  3. I just wrote a short story about a character that became murderous when someone pronounced his name incorrectly. The plot was fresh, something different, but the idea came from an experience. A long time acquaintance would say my name wrong at times, so I felt connected to the protagonist. I think that enriched my story and made it fun to write.

  4. Holly Robinson says:

    This is such a great post, Barbara, especially in this era where it seems that people can only be applauded for writing fiction that is EXACTLY from their own autobiographical experiences (i.e., you can't write from an Hispanic point of view or a gay point of view if you're neither of those.) I recently finished writing a book set in 1878, and what I found so compelling as I did the research was what I tried to put on the page: the experiences of women struggling to juggle marriage, art, motherhood, careers and other personal choices are universal and timeless. That helped me get "inside" the characters as I wrote.

    • Love your point about how these human experiences—although expressed through different specifics in different cultures, epochs, and plots—are really "universal and timeless." If that weren't so, we wouldn't be drawn so deeply into the novels we love!

  5. Barbara, I love this and, yes, a fresh take. A whole new way to look at deep POV, too!

    • Thank you, Jennifer! I think it's important not to assume that we "know" these things just because we've heard them before. Fresh perspectives help to return us to the beginner's mind, which is where our creativity can emerge. Glad this was helpful to you!

  6. wendyleslie says:

    A great post and timely for me as I embark on a new ms. Many thanks, Barbara. The two step process makes it clear and easy to use.

  7. Laura Drake says:

    Thought evoking post! I had a publisher tell me long ago, that if you're looking for sales, don't write a memoir. Unless you are famous, or got attacked by a cougar or shark, you'll only sell to your family. I believe this is true.

    But I wrote my WF, Days Made of Glass, and the relationship of the sisters is the one I shared with mine.

    Great post, Barbara!

    • Exactly! Memoirs tend to be interesting when they are truly unique ... which works if you're a celebrity or had a unique experience, as you say. But fiction is interesting—I'd say compelling and memorable—when it's a unique way of relating something universal that others can connect with. Sibling relationships are a perfect example!

  8. Julie Glover says:

    Great distinction! I really appreciate this post. Thanks.

  9. Eldred Bird says:

    Great article. I agree 100% with everything you said. When I was writing personal essays, I took "write what you know" in a more literal sense, but when I switched to fiction that changed. I moved more toward "write what you want to know and do the research." It took a few tries before I realized that it wasn't enough to become well versed in something to write about it and keep it interesting, I also had to have an emotional connection. Once I figured that out, things started to fall into place. My characters and settings came alive. Even my scenes flowed better and felt more real. Where it really showed up was in dialogue. Being able to get into the heads of the characters and make an emotional connection with them helped me separate the voices and bring out the different personalities.

    • Beautifully said, Eldred! The truth we seek to convey, through fiction, is at the emotional level. The events are there to serve and embody those human experiences, not as ends in themselves (although it depends on the genre, of course). And for sure, dialogue has to sound true even if it isn't a transcription of a "real" conversation!

  10. […] to mimic the feelings of what our characters might be having. You can read the full article here, if you […]

  11. Thank you so very much for your interesting articles and writing. E.

  12. dholcomb1 says:

    Thanks for pointing out the distinction.

    I've found that even with distinction, friends still try to make a correlation even if it doesn't exist.

    denise

  13. Thank you, Barbara. When you said to think of your work as a memoir, I felt myself get closer to my protagonist. Excellent post!

    • So glad you liked it, James! As you point out, we can let ourselves get close to our characters by finding the emotional connection with the part of ourselves that we share. Thanks for your comment!

  14. What a wonderful & thought-provoking post, Barbara! Thank you :).

  15. LivRancourt says:

    Fantastic post. Thank you!

  16. […] Writers in the Storm takes a fresh look at “Writing What You Know” with Barbara Linn […]

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