Write What You ——

I know a very limited number of things. I know what it is like to grow up in China in the 80s in a safe, comfortable, loving home. I know what it is like to move to a different country and feel like I’d been transported to a parallel dimension. (8th graders hugging and kissing in the hall, truly America must be going to hell in a hand basket.) And I know what it is like to be a suburban soccer mom from a very young age. That’s about it.

What I don’t know could float supertankers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Well, as you can see, that would put me in real trouble. Not only have I never been to any of the places or times I’ve set my stories in, but I’ve never committed a fraud or run away from home or fallen in love with a boss.

Or, as is the case in NOT QUITE A HUSBAND, ended a marriage.

Instead, my own rule has always been, Write What I Understand.

There are things I do not understand. Ménage-à-trois is the first thing that comes to mind—or basically any kind of multi-partner arrangement. Not that I don’t understand why people do it, but that I do not get, given my own views and experiences, how that leads to durable contentment for all parties involved. My take on relational happiness is two people focused on and devoted to each other, in faithfulness and equality.

But beyond a few such dead ends, I understand a great many things. Based on what I already know of my own immaturity, impulsiveness, and lack of will power, I can see how people would go beyond where I would pull up to a dead stop. I can see how they would do the unforgivable. I can see how they would make stupid decisions because they either cannot see any other way out or choose to ignore the consequences for the gratifications of the moment.

And then, there is my other rule: Write What I Can Imagine.

Or perhaps, What I Aspire To. My greatest aspiration is to one day achieve true generosity of spirit. It is easier to understand human frailties than to forgive them—all cynics understand human frailties. And it is easier to just understand that I’m a certain way rather than to undertake the effort to be better, to explore my own true potential.

So my books, in a way, are my meditations on this sincere but frequently bumbling aspiration of mine, on true generosity of spirit. Given that I understand how my characters get into such troubles, how do they extricate themselves from it? How do they rise above? How do they deal with their often justifiable hurt and anger? And how do others among them deal with their regret and self-loathing over things that cannot be undone?

I like to believe that my characters find the strength and courage and maturity in themselves to do what they need to do, whether it is to refuse to back down, to sacrifice, or to forgive.

Getting them there is the most difficult and, in the end, most rewarding part of writing. Because it is like getting myself there, however briefly. To bask in the extraordinary grace the human heart is capable of.

What I know is and will always be very limited. But my understand is deeper, and my aspiration has the potential to encompass the whole universe. (Why not dream big, eh? )

That’s why I do not confine myself to writing what I know.

10 thoughts on “Write What You ——”

  1. If we had to write what we “knew,” there would be no such thing as fiction. Libraries and bookstores would have only autobiography.

    Shakespeare (probably) didn’t know 12th century Verona or teen love suicide or cross dressing love affairs (unless Shakespeare in Love is, in fact, true), or magic or murder or, or, or. And yet 400 years later we’re still reading what he wrote about them.

    I think to write what you really have to “know” (or understand as you’ve said here) is people. How they act, how they react, and especially how they feel. (Not “Human Nature” because abstractions generally make poor stories–people.)

  2. I’ve found that writing is a good way to expand understanding and imagination. It’s when you push the boundaries that you really start thinking about who and why and what kind of person would do this and why. It’s malleable. In some sense, you know and understand by writing, and if you don’t understand what you’ve written, it’s probably a good sign that you need to keep working.

  3. That’s very perceptive. I don’t struggle with the “write what you know” concept because I’m greedy for sensation: I want to know everything. As a result, I end up tossing everything and the kitchen sink into my novels. Ultimately, the more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know, and that is humbling.

    I’ve also come to realize that knowing everything doesn’t help me keep control of my life, or dodge the curve balls it throws my way. So when I write what I don’t know–which, as a historical romance author is a lot–I’m relinquishing the manic grip I’ve tried to have over my life (and good grief is writing the best way to realize you have no control over anything, and it’s best to accept it than to agonize over it!!).

  4. Yes! Yes! If 'write what you know' were true then e.g. only people who should write about other worlds would be Buzz Aldrin & Co.!
    Me, I go for 'write what I think would be fun to read/do myself if I were free as a bird and not a timid IRL person'. Which, for the record, is fun for me but so far hasn't resulted in any editorial interest. *g*

    And, ref: previous post:
    'writing at the pace of stoned snails' Hahaha! And I'm not telling my DH of the title bestowed upon yours since then he'll expect something similar.

  5. I’ve always believed in “Write what you want to read.” If you write anything else, you won’t entertain yourself, and then, how can you hope to entertain other people?

  6. HelenW,

    Thank you.


    You said it. And remember, Shakespeare was a purveyor of popular entertainment in his day.




    You are right. And I think when you push those boundaries, you not only understand your characters better, but understand yourself better too.


    I think as you develop as a professional writer, you have to let go of perfectionism at some point and settle for a limited perfectionist. Because perfectionism just takes too long.

    And letting go is good for you. 😉 I know, I know, easy for me to say. I live like Pig Pen from Peanuts.


    Feel free to bestow something similar on your hubby. I think my secretly likes it. 🙂


    Yes that too. You have to read your story–again and again through the editing process as it so happens. So it’s really crucial that you write something you want to read.

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