Write what you know: the problems with famous advice by Ben Oakes

Allow me to set the scene. It’s 2012. I have just finished my second novel and I am having a discussion with an author about writing. I ask how I can make my writing better, more believable. ‘Write what you know,’ she tells me. I think about this and nod. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you know a lot about it, it’ll be more factually accurate. It’ll be closer to your heart, giving your story more soul. More personality. More character.

Now, one year on, I am thinking about that advice and am struggling to totally understand it. It wasn’t just on that occasion that I have heard those very same words uttered. For years I have been told to ‘write what you know’. But I am only just realizing how bloody hard it is to do just that and why I have never really done it before.

When I write about the LGBT community (which I admittedly do quite a lot), people think I’m writing about myself but I never am. None of my characters are based on me and none of them have my story. Of course, there are hints of me in all my characters, even the straight female ones.

I do not believe a writer can ever totally hide his or herself in their work. It’s just not done. If someone disagrees with me then I’d like them to prove that they keep themselves out of their characters as I really don’t think it is possible.

Anyway, writing what I know is something I find very hard, a lot harder than writing about things I need to research. Writing what you know makes it easier for people to judge you and for people to think that they know you. Sometimes, I’d rather people didn’t know every aspect of my life. I’m not going to lie, I honestly think only two people apart from my parents know over 75% of my life. No one knows everything, and I don’t see why anyone should have to just because doing what I love wants me to.

So when people tell you to write what you know, what exactly do they mean? Do they mean to take small parts of your personality and exploit them to create entire characters? Do they mean take people you know, fictionalize them and make stories for them? Or do they literally mean tell your personal story, allowing people to make assumptions and judgments about you based entirely on your fiction?

It’s an interesting concept, writing what you know. I think for the most part it can be incredibly helpful to make your work the best it can possibly be… as long as your work isn’t just a ripped-off journal entry, disclosing too much about your personal life. We’re not on Jeremy Kyle, people!

It’s called fiction for a reason; it shouldn’t be a totally true story.

That’s not to say that fiction shouldn’t be shocking, emotive, and real. Oh no! I am a huge fan of writing about controversial subjects, or tackling big issues that wouldn’t usually be spoken about. Be aware though that writing about these things can result in backlash. If you don’t want to be faced with questions that may upset or trigger you, then I’d advise steering clear from anything too revealing.

I also think it totally depends on the person. What do they feel comfortable disclosing? For instance, I know a lot of people who wouldn’t want to write about sexuality because they’re afraid people will know (or incorrectly presume that) they’re gay. Clearly, I’m not bothered about that. Other things though, I’m not so open about, so I’m not going to write about them. But I do know them. And I can write about them, even if nobody ever sees any of it.

Am I missing a trick? Am I being too soft? Am I being a poor writer? Who knows. Maybe I’m just allowing myself to protect my feelings from being hurt. Maybe I’m not cut out for this tortured artist writing deal. Maybe I’m just not comfortable displaying my private diary entries to the world as a work of fiction.

Perhaps I’ll just save that for my poetry.