I was fifteen years old when I took my first workshop classes in verse (poetry), fiction and playwriting. Poetry was always my strong suit. I’ve always enjoyed playing with alliteration, slant rhymes and creating metaphors are my guilty pleasure. When it came to my other two workshop classes – fiction and playwriting – I would always struggle. My character development was weak; I had no idea how to define the stakes, and writing believable dialogue was a lost cause. Whenever I’d struggle with an assignment, my mentors would always tell me, “write what you know.”
Okay, sure – but what do I know?
I was fifteen years old, attending a boarding school that was two hours away from home. I had been homeschooled for the past four years and hadn’t stepped inside of a classroom since the fifth grade. I had a boyfriend back home, who I would see on weekends, and a few friends I would hang out with on campus. So, what did I know about?
I knew plenty. I had experienced a lot in those fifteen years, but I wasn’t confident enough to put those thoughts on paper. I didn’t think my mentors would appreciate reading about the time I almost got kidnapped, and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing how my boyfriend and I met until my senior year. They continued to ask me to write what I know, so naturally, I wrote about what I knew (and what most fifteen-year-old girls knew): hanging out with friends at the mall.
It was easy for me to draft out a scene that was based off a conversation I had when waiting in line at the food court. I had spent so much time at the mall with my friends, never buying anything (except for the occasional Arizona Iced Tea), that several conversations or funny – HAD to be there – moments would pop in my head. My first full length play simply outlined the evolution of a friendship between two girls who originally met (yup, you guessed it) at the mall. My playwriting professor enjoyed the quirky dialogue that I had adapted from my own experiences, and was proud that I had completed a full length play by the end of the semester. Although I had a successful year, he noted on my report card, that he’d like to see my characters and story lines leave the mall.
You’ve got to be kidding me. I just got a handle on what I know, and now I must leave?
My projects in my prose workshops were not even close to brag-worthy. I attempted to write what I know, like I did in playwriting, but my professor couldn’t get a grasp on who the characters were and found the story to be incomplete. Awesome…
The following year, I moved my characters “out of the mall” and started a play that’s plot revolved around the first Christmas I celebrated with my boyfriend. I turned in the first scene to my professor and he told me the dialogue wasn’t believable and asked me, “what are the stakes?”
What the hell do you mean by stakes?
I followed the same formula – writing what I know, using quirky dialogue – but changed the setting. How am I screwing this up? To be honest, it took me years to understand how plot lines are mapped out and whatever-the-fuck stakes were. To this day, I still get anxious about the stakes and end up changing them six or seven times in my head, before anything gets on paper.
I was sixteen-years-old and my life was stress-free. I hadn’t experienced a personal sacrifice or struggled with heartbreak. All I knew was what I knew:
I have a boyfriend back home. I have a few friends at school. I like Britney Spears and Arizona Iced Tea.
I continued writing about Christmas Day spent with my boyfriend, but my professor kept saying the “stakes weren’t high enough.” I eventually gave up on the project and brought my attention to an epic verse piece I had been working on all semester long. My piece April told the story of a girl who attempted to commit suicide after taking a chemistry test.
Did I know someone who had attempted suicide?
Did I know a girl named April?
Did I know anything about Chemistry?
Jack Pot! I took an Intro to Chemistry class the semester before, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I referenced the Bunsen Burner and Avogadro’s number in the first few stanzas of the piece. Oh! How feisty of me!
April ended up being one of the best pieces I had written during my time at boarding school, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. It didn’t stem from a personal experience. Although my other professors witnessed the success I had with a piece like April, they still pushed me to write what I knew.
My senior year, I dedicated more time writing about what I could possibly know, and ixnayed the mall from my go-to settings. Once again, it did not work in my favor. My professors were not impressed with my work. Before the end of the year, my playwriting professor requested I wrote about the mall.
No fucking way.
I wrote a short play about my boyfriend and I hanging out at the mall before we started dating. All the dialogue was based off real conversations we had; the response to the piece was overall positive. The play was picked to be performed at our annual performance for the whole student body. Before the actors started rehearsing, my professor took my original script, cut it down from 25 pages to 12, changed the ending and removed 75% of the dialogue. I quickly learned that although there are some gems in candid conversation, the average audience does not give a shit how many “um’s” you said.
Naturally, I am a big talker – especially once I get going – and even though I say some cool shit that is tag-line worthy, the most memorable characters aren’t remembered for what they say, but simply for what they do.
My professor was right to cut all that unnecessary dialogue and to change the ending. To this day I still get goose bumps when I think about how every single student in the audience “awww’d” in unison and then proceeded to applaud and whistle. I remember waiting in the wings, watching the two actors say their first two lines, and hearing the audience burst out in laughter during those long and beautiful pauses.
Asking a young writer to write what they know is extremely overwhelming, because right off the bat, teenagers don’t know that much. Unfortunately, following that request from a professor does not always work in your favor.
Sometimes when you write what you know, you’re told it’s not believable or it’s cliché.
Haha. Cliché. God, I hate that comment.
How can we not be cliché? My life is the biggest cliché:
I studied liberal arts in college and married my high school sweetheart.
Even if that’s not the case for you, you’ll still be told your life is cliché or trite in some instances.
Oh! You are a college dropout who still lives at home?
It’s already been done!
I honestly felt the most confident with my writing when I went to college. Instead of being assigned to write what I know, I was given concrete examples.
Write about a place, write about a car ride, write about a vacation, etc.
We’ve been to places, we’ve gotten lost in places. We’ve loved vacations, we’ve hated vacations. The story is there and we didn’t even know it. We’ve all met memorable characters in our life, whether they are a friend or enemy. We’ve all had to make hard decisions in our life, and that’s where we are faced with stakes. As we grow up, we slowly learn that less is more and actions do speak louder than words.
Over time we develop a rugged, sometimes bent-out-of-shape, invincible, wise and inspiring narrative. Our priorities have changed. We don’t worry about having enough money to go into the photo booth, we worry about having enough money to pay rent or get a loved one a birthday present.
It’s not about writing what we know, it’s about how we write because of what we know.
The next time someone tells you to write what you know, or to stop writing what you know, brush it off.
You don’t have to take my advice, but here it is:
Write whatever the fuck you want.