No Language Without Experience

By: Nicole Donadio

I don’t know a writer who hasn’t had to endure the cliché “write what you know.”

This seems like bad advice — I can’t help but think that if we stuck to this rule, fiction simply wouldn’t exist. I feel like writing is exploration: if we only write what we know, how do we sharpen our worldview? How do we learn as we go? How do we allow for the experience of others before us to inform our work at hand?

But looking at this another way, how do we even get started? We have nothing to draw from without knowing, seeing, feeling, or learning “things.”  We have no language without experience.

Look Closely at What You’ve Written Already

I thought about this “write what you know” rule against some of the projects I’ve worked on. One, a short story about a woman who is almost completely blind. Not my experience, thankfully, so what business did I have writing a blind character if it’s not what I know? I did my research as usual, imagined to the best of my ability what life would be like and how I could construct the experience and voice of a person facing this terrifying future, and wrote the story anyway.

The story may have on the surface appeared to be about a woman facing blindness and her relationship with her lover. Read figuratively, there’s more to it than literal blindness: it’s about her inability to see her own beauty and the deep adoration her girlfriend feels towards her.

That’s where we writers find common ground with our characters. I’m not blind, but I have, upon reflection, dealt with my own reticence the same way this character does. In that way, I am writing what I know after all – even if I didn’t realize it until much later.

So yes, we do write what we know. No writer can write without two things: emotions and experiences. At the heart of all of our work is a piece of us we have transformed into story. Our job as writers of fiction is to turn what we know innately and gathered through experience into something new. And if we’re writing literary fiction, we have the earnest job of sewing threads that connect the parts of our story together: not a feat we can always do in our real lives.

So long as we keep true to the story itself, we are doing our job.


Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the individual and are not necessarily shared by the WCYR. However, as an organizational body we acknowledge the value of their expression.

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