When “Write What You Know” Doesn’t Work

One of the truisms we hear over and over as newbie writers is write what you know.  Pull from personal experiences and emotions and put them on the page and you can’t go wrong.  Here’s the problem with it.  It assumes we all are pulling from a common set of experiences. 

My childhood is a good example. I have scoliosis, and I started experiencing balance issues long before I was diagnosed. I couldn’t stand up on roller skates.  There are family stories about the time I fell over reaching for something while I was sitting on the couch. Anytime someone makes a comment about it’s like riding a bike, I give them a blank look, because I would topple over as by the third time I rotated the pedals.

I’ve written a story which pulls from my experience growing up with scoliosis.  It’s not completely true to life since I’m not a princess living in a cave with a dragon. The feedback I’ve gotten is interesting.  What I find most puzzling is that the things that I experienced first hand related to my specific diagnosis others are telling me are improbable and not possible.

This leaves me with a dilemma.  I know that what I have experienced first hand is accurate.  I lived it.  These are possibilities for what is going on.

  1. I am not getting these ideas across properly.
  2. The people providing feedback are not educated regarding scoliosis.
  3. The people providing feedback are not aware that I am writing from direct experience.

I have a feeling the answer is that it’s a mix of the three.  I can fix #1, I thought I was doing #2, and #3 I don’t have much control over unless I include some sort of biography. Aside from that, I’m not sure how I can fix it.

We always write what we know at some level.  But we can’t control what the reader knows, or what the reader takes from our stories.  All we can do is try to present our stories the best we can.

2 Replies to “When “Write What You Know” Doesn’t Work

  1. I’ve always preferred “Write what you love” but this time the alternative is more accurate. Short of providing a medical textbook, I’m not sure #2 has an easy fix. #3 is simple enough. Throw in a one line foreword that “This story is based on my personal experience with scoliosis.”

  2. I’ve been using that kind of statement in the cover letter, which may or may not be read by the slushers. My understandings that a foreward is not considered appropriate for a short story.

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