Mark Twain Said “Write What You Know,” but We’ve Been Misusing His Words
How this old adage can actually make you a better writer
When I was a teenager, I attended a local writer’s workshop that was part of my city’s attempt to create community. The instructor was young and enthusiastic, with buoyant curly hair and bright red nails. Ironically, her name was Hope, and she announced to the class on the first day that “Write What You Know” was the great Golden Rule of writing, according to Mark Twain.
Imagine my adolescent dismay when I looked at the myriad adults around the room and wondered what I could possibly know about anything. Did I want to write about my self-proclaimed prowess at Super Mario Bros? My secret recipe for afternoon nachos? What Tanya said about Jess and Milo k-i-s-s-i-n-g behind the gym?
No, I wanted to write ghost stories and thrillers and scare the pants off my readers, but instead I felt myself scootching down in my seat and thinking nobody would ever take me seriously as a writer. They would know I had never actually been haunted by an angry spirit, or run for my life in terror from a sasquatch, and oh my god what am I doing here I can’t turn in a story or they’ll all laugh at me and think I’m stupid. Hope had dashed any sense of hope I had at being a writer.
Now I’m older and allegedly wiser
The older I get the more I realize I don’t know diddly squat. Yet here I am still writing my heart out. That’s because Mark Twain’s famous adage is a bit misunderstood, and you can actually write about things you don’t know all the time and be perfectly successful. Want proof? I have it on good authority that J.R.R. Tolkien never actually met a hobbit or visited Middle Earth, yet he was quite adept at writing about them. Also, Michael Crichton didn’t actually clone dinosaur DNA and set the creatures loose on a park full of screaming scientists and a pair of hapless children.
So what the heck was Mark Twain talking about? You should write what you know, he wasn’t completely cuckoo in saying that, but he didn’t mean you have to know everything to be a good writer, and he certainly didn’t mean you should never step out of your comfort zone.
So what do you know?
- You were born into a unique living situation, which was a succotash of people, culture, economics, and environment. Nobody else knows about your life’s circumstances the way you do.
- You have felt deeply in your life, because you’re human. You’ve probably been in love, or had your heart broken, or pined for something unattainable, or felt lonely or self-conscious or jealous or pissed off. You’re an expert at what you’ve lived through, because you know what it feels like.
- You process roughly 6,200 different thoughts per day, according to a Canadian study, which means you understand how a mind works and what drives your choices.
- Chances are, you’ve encountered a fruit basket full of different folks in your life. Some of them have been lovely, others crazy as a meatball sandwich, but all of them have taught you about personalities, which has informed your ability to create characters.
- Unless you’re made of cement, you have an imagination, and it’s as unique to you as your thumbprint in a snowflake.
See? You know plenty. But readers are a sly folk, and if you’ve never tasted a kumquat or smelled the air in the French Alps, and you try to describe these things to your reader, they’re going to smell a rat faster than you can say “verisimilitude.”
The truth of it all
This is what Mark Twain was talking about when he said those infernal words. “Write What You Know” shouldn’t put you in a tiny writer’s box, but it should inform your approach to story. If you’ve experienced profound wonder or unspeakable embarrassment, bottle up those feelings and dip your writer’s quill in them. This is what will make your work sing more than anything else. This is what you truly, deeply know.
As for the rest, if you want to write about a topic you don’t strictly know anything about, do some googling, read some books, talk to some brainiacs in that field, go all 1980s and scroll through some microfiche if you have to. Do the work to learn about your topic, and you’ll add some depth and interest to the surface of your story.
So that’s it. “Write What You Know” is basically a nudge toward being authentic to your own experiences. Between diving deep into these and learning to research like a boss, your writing will soar to new heights. The best part is, once you pull it off, nobody will be able to tell whether or not you’ve written what you know. Your work will speak for itself.
Now get out there and get scribbling.