From the Basement

April 25, 2010

Writing What You Know (& family)

“Write what you know” is one of the “classic” bits of writing advice that I feel pretty okay about disregarding. If people only wrote what they literally knew, we wouldn’t have fantasy, sci-fi, or most of the mysteries and thrillers that dominate the market. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have most romances, either, let alone your stand-alone bestsellers like The Lovely Bones (which I still haven’t read and don’t think I could handle). Not to mention one of my favorite genres, the dystopian novel. 1984, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale – gone.

Emotional honesty, though – now, that’s something else entirely. InΒ On Writing, Steven King tells us, “The heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

If we take “write what you know” literally (as too many writing instructors do, especially in those formative years), we cripple ourselves. But if we are to take it as a mandate to write from the heart, to be as emotionally honest as possible, to write with the integrity necessary to telling a truly good story – well then. Write what you know, indeed.

I think there comes a point in time where most writers understand this. We say, yeah! I can write whatever I want! Boo-yah! (or whatever you yell in moments like that)

But then comes the Oh, Shit Moment when you realize that writing from your heart is freaking hard. To write honestly, you have to be honest with yourself, and not only about yourself, but about your relationships and your job or your classes and, most of all, your family.

I’m writing about this because I’m struggling with this. Today, on this grey, wet Sunday morning, I got an idea for a novel. A big novel. It would be big, that is, in size. I’m thinking about the characters, the arcs, the complexity, and – well, it’s inspired in part by my family. Not based on my family, but some of the themes are ones I’m taking from personal experience.

And the struggle is – okay, I can write it. But what if my mom ever finds out? – which she would, if she was alive when it was published (though a heavenly confrontation is not above her, I’m telling you). Not because I based a character on her, because I’m not about to do that – characters should walk and breathe and become and be their own people – but I know that if certain situations or themes or emotions made it into the novel that relate to my family (as they’re bound to at some point in my writing career)… well, of course she’ll recognize it and know where it comes from, even if Jane Smith on the street is reading going, “Oh my gosh, that’s my family!” having absolutely no idea where I got the inspiration.

You see the dilemma? So, on this business of writing what you know. How the hell do you write what you know when you’re afraid of hurting the people you love? I’ve read the writing manuals on disguising characters, making them physically and geographically as separated from the person (people) you’re basing them on as possible. Also, according to Anne Lamott, you’re supposed to make them anti-Semitic and give them a tiny penis so that they will never recognize themselves.

But let’s face it. The people we’re closest to, the people who live with us, the people who raise us – they know where themes come from. Ideas. Certain scenes, and whatever else you decide to plop in there.

Everyone says you have to free yourself from the fear of hurting your loved ones. You can be honest and respectful at the same time. I get that. But in the back of my mind, there’s still this nagging sense of “what if?”

That’s just something I’ll have to work on. And I’ll start writing the story anyway. Because really, if you don’t write the story you want to tell, why are you writing in the first place?


  1. Great points. You could resort to a pseudo, so that anybody related to you who doesn’t know you’re writing would not make the connection between themselves and your characters. But that would mean not mentioning you ever wrote that novel…

    I completely relate to the “I don’t want to hurt the people I love” but I do believe that our loved ones can understand our need to write and express it all. A mum will always be a mum. If she does recognize herself and gets hurt, it would only generate a long heartfelt conversation in which you could tell her how you truly feel. And this applies to all your loved ones. The fact that you know their supposed flaws and still love them should be proof enough… Then again, I might be completely wrong and will have to face the consequences of my own project in a way I’m not prepared to. I am telling my life right now and on-line. My argument is that it is my life and thus my own point of view. Some might disagree in my portraying them but, should they be as intelligent as I think they are, they will understand that everybody does not see them as they see themselves.
    Am I making any sense? I wonder now…

    All in all: start writing and worry about these things when you’re finished πŸ™‚

    all the best,

    Comment by kismirova — April 25, 2010 @ 3:29 pm | Reply

    • Hi Diana,

      Those are some good suggestions, and you’re right on in that what we’ve experienced with our families are our experiences and thus are ours to write about. You make good sense. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Take care,


      Comment by girldownstairs — April 26, 2010 @ 7:38 pm | Reply

  2. So true! I think what is even more surprising is when a person (let’s say, for example, me) is writing, writing, writing, creating characters and situations, etc. and then suddenly goes back and reads what she has so far and goes, Oh my god – that is my family! This has happened to me all-to-recently. It’s not a major deal, and I don’t think it would hurt my family (it’s not even my entire family, just a few key characters) but it still shocked me. I was actually moved to tears when I went back and read a chapter and realized that I had written a scene that I actually remembered having happen to me. What was shocking was that, as I wrote it, it didn’t even occur to me that that was what I was doing. I think Writing What You Know can be a very subconscious act. It constantly surprises me how much my family works their way into my stories, how even if I don’t realize it, I’m writing what I know and what I have felt.

    Comment by Emily — April 25, 2010 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  3. Hey there!

    Yeah, so I’m kinda keeping up with the blog. Blogging daily is a really good idea, and you definitely have the substance, time, and meditation for it.

    Re: Writing what you know, family, etc. – what if she takes it as a compliment? In a way, you’re immortalizing her, perhaps not in the way she would immortalize herself, but … yes. Compliment?

    Good luck with the novel – I’m excited to hear more about it! You’ve been blessed with the time to write it – so go ahead, I say.

    Love love, kiss kiss,

    Comment by abbieplouff — April 26, 2010 @ 3:53 am | Reply

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