Mark Twain Said “Write What You Know,” but That’s Ridiculous

Can this old adage actually make you a better writer?

Ryan Doskocil

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Photo by Isabel Vittrup-Pallier on Unsplash

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?

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Ryan Doskocil

Ryan Doskocil is a fiction author specializing in speculative fiction and magical realism. Visit his website at ryandoskocil.com.