Write What is True

Often the advice “write what you know” is bandied about. I always took this to mean that you must draw from your own experiences when you write. This is obviously good advice but not much use if you’re writing about someone living on the planet Pandora. It should go deeper and further than that.
I think the advice should be ” write what you know to be true” or “write from a place that is true to you” or “write what is the truth for the characters.” Actually all three of these statements are important.
I don’t know about you, but when I cop out or try to gloss over a piece of dialogue or a scene that I know isn’t working I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach. As a less experienced writer I would often try to conceal this with more words, but eventually you have to ask yourself “What the hell am I trying to say here?” and if you can’t answer the question, then cut it.
Meaning that no matter what the genre or the level of imagination and creativity involved is, be honest in your writing. Find the thread that resonates so that you can write about teenage speed freaks or serial murderers or beauty queens or bow-hunting or someone from Pandora.
I think it’s probably accurate to say that most writers are observant. That most find it possible to slip into someone else’s shoes (and thoughts and habits), but I also think that we have some kind of inner detector (a bullshit detector, if you will) and if we are not writing from a place of honesty, but rather taking the easy way, or not digging deep enough, then the detector sends a signal.
Unfortunately it is not an electric shock so it can be ignored. But to the detriment of the writing. It is not easy to peel away the layers until you get to the real feelings, but it makes for a better story and one that resonates on a deeper level than say, a Hallmark greeting card.
Going beneath the surface, gets you to the heart of the character, and gets you to a level where your characters can start to assert themselves.
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4 Responses to Write What is True

  1. You make some excellent points. I always wondered about this “write about what you know” advice as a beginner. I wanted to write crime, but I’ve never murdered anyone!

  2. Treggiari says:

    No, but you’ve probably felt angry enough to kill someone so that helps. Other than that I guess you would have to get into a killer’s head somehow. I bet you’d know when you got it right.

  3. Marisa Birns says:

    Yes, hard to draw from one's own experiences when writing about intergalactic worlds. Or ancient life, or drug addiction (if one has never done drugs).

    But we do know what it feels like to be afraid or angry or happy…

    And we know our neighbor who has a particular way of licking her lips when she's thinking that can be used as a mannerism for a quirky alien in writer's story.

    Write what you know is true–or should be true–is very advice!

  4. Jo Treggiari says:

    Yes! It's my favorite part of writing. Incorporating bits of truth and mixing them with something totally imagined. But there is an organic way of doing it so that it always seems possible and fits within the parameters of human experience.
    Thanks for commenting, Marisa!