For Those Who Ought Not Write At All

Calvin and Hobbes, Write what you know, humor


Write what you know. The mantra of writers through the ages. Sounds brilliant and logical if you don’t examine it too closely.

On the one hand, you cannot write what you don’t know. If you’re born without the ability to smell (congenital anosmia), you will never be able to describe the mouth-watering scent of bacon frying. If you were raised by wolves, you couldn’t write about books, or combs or mashed potatoes. Come to think of it, you couldn’t write. But since these things are outside the realm of your experience, you’d never want to write about them anyway.

But writing what you do know—that’s a brain-teaser.

What do I know? I know how to use the hundreds of remotes and various viewing devices hooked up to our TV (if I look at the cheat sheet), I know how to make Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I know how to iron—I just choose not to. I know a lot more, but I won’t bore you with the list.

I do not know how to play Skyrim, hit a tennis ball, play a harmonica, sing…


But these lists are based on things I do or do not know how to do. And if I wanted to write about those things I don’t know how to do, I have a few options. I could learn them (except the singing thing), I could talk to others that know how to do them, or I could surf the web and find more information than I could possibly use.

So back to the original statement: Write what you know. Maybe it means write what you know through experience.

I know what it feels like to give birth. And to make love. And to burn myself. And to be drunk. And to comfort others. And to piss them off. And to lose someone I love…

And I know about temptation, giving in to it and overcoming it. I’ve felt anger, love, humiliation, pride, sorrow, elation, pleasure, numbness…

But I have never been a male, lost a child, been in a tornado, had to go hungry, swam the English Channel, won the lottery…

I haven’t experienced some of the things I’ve written about. Yet they’re among the best things I’ve ever written: life from a male perspective,  the trauma of miscarriage, life in a small town I don’t live in.

I think I will just take Gore Vidal’s advice:


“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

― Gore VidalThe Essential Gore Vidal



5 comments on “For Those Who Ought Not Write At All

  1. my first book was a historical, set in Wyoming in 1860. How was this writing what I know? I researched. A lot. I immersed myself in 1860’s life. And, of course, I imagined… So by the time I sat down to write the actual story, I was writing what I knew.


  2. Love that Vidal quote, and couldn’t agree more. I never understood the “Write what you know” adage – it always seemed to me there’d be a whole lot of boring books and not much else if we all listened to it

    Liked by 1 person

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