Write what you know vs. write what you’ve felt

The conventional writing wisdom is “write what you know.” Typically, “what you know” includes your life experiences, identities, and professions. This passage from “Side Hustle” is based entirely on my own experience as a linguistics major in college:

Example 1:

So he started spending a lot more time in Wilson Library and Davis Library. He knew that, when Isaac wasn’t in their office, he preferred to work in Graham Memorial Hall—it was cozier, Isaac said, and it was also one of the only places on campus where it was acceptable to nap. Leo lived just a few blocks from Franklin Street. It was noisy, but he’d found an affordable spot and liked that he could walk to campus, whereas Isaac lived far enough away that it wouldn’t be feasible for him to take the bus home and back just for a midday nap.

Leo managed to avoid Isaac for almost a month, calling out sick when they were scheduled to have their advisee meeting and emailing Professor Gutierrez his notes instead. But when you’re a grad student, even a campus as large as Carolina’s gets reduced to just your office, the libraries, and a couple classrooms. It was inevitable that he’d run into Isaac again.

Leo had left his copy of Mesthrie et al.’s Introducing Sociolinguistics in the office and needed to retrieve it before finalizing his lessons and assignments for the next week. He beelined to his desk, finger running along the spines on his shelf, and didn’t notice that Isaac was in until it was too late.

“Hey Leo.”

At the same time, “write what you know” is a vague saying, with vague criteria—how do you know if you know something? Sure, you can be an expert in some areas, but there can be things you think you know that you might be horribly misinformed about.

“Write what you know” also feels limiting. I might not know what it feels like to live in the world as a White person, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing characters who are White—because there are human experiences and emotions that everyone shares regardless of background.

I find it more useful, then, to think of writing as “write what you’ve felt.” No matter what, if you render the emotion well enough that the reader feels it too, the superficial details of the character often become irrelevant, and the story comes to the forefront. In the following example, although I’m not a Mexican-American guy, nor a person wrangling demons during the apocalypse, I drew from common human experience of fearing abandonment to write the viewpoint character’s doubts about himself:

Example 2:

With Bazoniuth gone, I won’t have any excuse for messing with Karen, not when it’ll be just her and me making dumb human choices. Jesse deserves a quiet life with her. She deserves to have someone who can actually support her and care for her—he can get his shit together long enough to provide. I haven’t had a girlfriend in ten years now. Karen needs someone who can actually handle his emotions, not my ass throwing pity parties 24/7.

I’m too much of a coward to come clean to Jesse. All I can do is end whatever I have with Bazoniuth and Karen and, I don’t know, sage myself to Hell and cleanse myself of my sins, I guess. How do you even get over doing this kind of thing? God, Jesse’s my best friend. My only friend, if we’re gonna be real. I don’t know how I’d live without him.

I don’t know how I’ll get by on my own.

Satire and humor in particular are notoriously difficult to pick up on through text alone. However, it is a Western notion to have a story carry one level of seriousness throughout. Many Chinese dramas, including The Untamed (2019), swing between humor and seriousness in a way that is traditional for East Asian narratives, but that often feels jarring to Westerners.

You can play around with the multilayered nature of narrative by slipping in easter eggs that demonstrate inside knowledge and add a bit of humor even as the rest of the narrative is bleak, like these science and geek jokes that I crack in passing, which are nonetheless reflections of the character’s way of seeing of the world (more on filtering later):

The most powerful validation of your work is when people cry where you intend them to, and laugh where you intend them to. If you’re stuck somewhere, try reading your piece aloud to someone and see if they react the way you want them to at the right moments.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Freewrite for 15 minutes.
    1. Identify where you are drawing from something you know, such as work experience.
    2. Identify where you are drawing from something you’ve felt, such as the experience of being rejected.