Mmegi Blogs :: Write What You Know- Is It Good Or Bad Advice?
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Thursday 16 August 2018, 17:52 pm.
Write What You Know- Is It Good Or Bad Advice?

There's some advice always given to new writers, things such as "show don’t tell", "use strong verbs and no adverbs", and "write what you know".
By Lauri Kubuitsile Fri 27 Apr 2018, 13:39 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Write What You Know- Is It Good Or Bad Advice?

good or bad advice?

Some people think it means that your fiction should be thinly veiled autobiography. These people might tell you that the only legitimate stories you can write are ones that stem from your own life, your own experiences.

If that were the case, the majority of good literature would not exist. Some of the worst novels I’ve ever read are written from the author’s personal life.  These sorts of books are common in Botswana— that tired trope of growing up in a hut and then succeeding against all odds. These books are almost without exception bad, but yet they’ve written what they know, and there lies the problem.

They’ve written what happened, often starting the book with an intention, a purpose for the story. Before they sit down to that blank screen, they’ve already failed.  Fiction is about imagination, it’s about emotional truths, it’s about the characters and where they’ll take the writer. If it’s just a recount of what happened, then all of the important aspects of what makes fiction amazing disappear. 

In an article in The Atlantic titled “Don’t Write What You Know”, Bret Anthony Johnston explains how when he started out, he wrote mostly autobiography that only posed as fiction. 

“I knew how, in real life, the stories ended, and I had a pretty firm idea of what they “meant,” so the story could not surprise me, or provide an opportunity for wonder. I was writing to explain, not to discover.  The writing process was as exciting as completing a crossword puzzle I’d already solved. So I changed my approach.”   Ernest Hemmingway said, “From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” And that is the crux of it.

You might take an event from your life or an emotion that you’ve felt and then you run with that. You let your imagination take you away.

I think of this a lot when I write historical fiction. I do quite a bit of research, but the research is just where I start.

My imagination is where the real story lies.


For a recent novel, I read a letter written by Kgosi Sechele where he mentions a witchcraft trial.

The people on trial were accused of witchcraft by the daughter to the maid who worked at the mission house in Ntsweng. That’s the only part of the entire book I wrote that came from fact.

I read that and thought: what was going on with that girl? And then my imagination was set free. I’ve never been a Mokwena girl living in the 1880s in Ntsweng.  But I have been afraid. I have been in love (as this character is), I’ve been confused about who to believe, who to trust.

I know those feelings. That’s what it means to write what you know.  In an article in The New York Times titled “Write What You Know—Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” Novelist Mohsin Hamid explains how he thinks a writer takes two strands, like the strands of DNA, and twists them together.  One strand is what we know, encompassing what we have experienced, what we’ve observed, what we’ve felt, what we’ve researched. The other strand is what we want to know, all of the things we want to understand better.

This is very important to me, perhaps one of the main reasons why I write fiction. Often my writing is more about understanding an issue better.  The way I get to that understanding is through the writing. I know nothing about it before I start, or very little.  I’m not sure of my position: what would I do if I was this person? Or even if I do take an actual thing that happened in my life, perhaps I want to know: what would have happened if it had gone another way?  Mohsin Hamid puts it so beautifully in the article, “…I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded.

I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.”

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