It’s the one phrase that is often first taught to writers: Only write what you know.
Almost every English teacher I’ve ever had has weighed the importance of this rule upon my shoulders. When it came to submitting a piece of writing they would say, “Keep the plot simple” and “Only write what you have experienced yourself.” As a relatively obedient, unadventurous adolescent, I always dreaded this guideline, this restriction. Did my teacher expect a self-deprecating first-person narrative, strife with melodramatic teenage angst?
It wasn’t until after I graduated high-school and took writing more seriously that I realised I had completely misunderstood the meaning of that simple phrase, as most writers probably do at first. I took it too literally. I thought it meant, for example, if you wanted to write about the events of the Irish Troubles, you had to have experienced the events yourself to write effectively. But in truth, the saying itself has little to do with action, and rather, with emotion.
Writing is an extremely emotional endeavour. You have to feel what your characters are feeling and be impacted by what they are experiencing. You have to empathise with their dreams, their ambitions, their desires, their weaknesses and their strengths. Overall, you have to relate to their emotional needs. And that is where your experience comes into play.
The ability to evoke empathy and sympathy within the reader is a skill that can only be obtained by experiencing the emotions of the characters yourself. We’ve all faced loss and anguish in our lives, we all know the deep-rooted sorrow that comes along these experiences, the way our body and mind reacts to grief, in our own personal way. We’ve all experienced love and pleasure at some point, and the chemical, instinctual responses of our body. And we’ve all experienced fear, anxiety, and possibly, terror and the raw uncertainty that follows.
Writing what you know, isn’t about physically going through the Irish Troubles, or experiencing the events of war. All that knowledge can be obtained with hard, thorough research and personal accounts from actual individuals who have experienced it. But it’s what you know, what you have experienced emotionally that is the essence of this famous guideline and the heart of effective writing. If you’ve felt it, and you can translate your sorrow, pleasure, elation, fear, terror, anxiety, dreams and nightmares into your work, your readers will feel that rush of emotion too.
In short, as a writer, you have to see yourself within your own writing, in order for your readers to see themselves reflected in the story itself.