What does 'write what you know' really mean?
Write what you know is probably the oldest piece of advice there is for aspiring writers. But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad… or necessarily good, either. Here’s my take on what it means.
Writing what you know doesn’t mean that if you are a janitor at night to pay the bills while you learn the craft of writing that you only ever get to write movies about janitors. What I do believe ‘writing what you know’ refers to is emotional honesty.
Screenplays are driven by the ups and downs of the main character’s quest. The ups and downs refer to both the storyline (or action) but also your heroine/hero’s emotions. And this is where many new writers come up short. They often sidestep tackling the really BIG EMOTIONS. Oh sure, we see death scenes, sex scenes, pillage scenes, car chases & death from car chases – but what we don’t witness is the real heartfelt emotions that arise from these events.
Often, the new writer doesn’t show us the ‘fallout’ from these events in our hero’s life – because they don’t know how it feels. To complicate matters, many new writers are afraid to imagine for us how it might feel – when it’s exactly that exploration of emotional subtext that makes film real to us. It’s that bond of shared emotional experience that connects us to the heroine/hero in the end.
So, ‘write what you know’ means write from a place of emotional honesty. Either take the risk to write from your very own place of emotional experience or take the time to understand and empathize with someone who has lived the experience you are writing about and do it with integrity…. Don’t shortchange the audience.
LIVE it (the emotion you’re writing about) and FEEL it if you’re hoping to write it and ultimately convince an audience to believe it. Then WRITE it. We all have a sixth sense concerning emotional honesty… discover yours and write from that place. That’s my take on what the phrase ‘write what you know’ is really urging new writers to tackle.
I hope this helps. And good luck with your writing.