What you know is only the beginning

When I achieved my teenage dream of training in a kung-fu monastery, I had no idea what to do next. I felt aimless.  Goal-less.  With six months to graduate, I had planned to move to a new city until I could dream up a new dream.

As I was getting my plans together, I got into a huge argument with my brother.  I said that once I graduated, I wanted to work in a cushy, air-conditioned office where I was making just enough that I wasn’t worried about money. He responded by saying that when he graduates, after medical school, he expected to make around 125 times what I would be making, that I was aiming for the gutter, and that maybe he had an inaccurate view of my potential. 

He went on to say that I would find no writing inspiration in a cubicle, and that I would only have things to write about if I talked to felons with eight fingers, or farmers with seven kids who speak only in biblical German.  “That’ll give you some stories,” he said.

It’s always difficult to navigate that part of a conversation.

Needless to say, it made me furious.  It made me screaming, crying, wall-punching mad. How dare my own blood say I’m aiming for the gutter by wanting to be comfortable. I deserved a break, god-dammit. What right did he have; the child who partied all through high school, then spent five years as an MP in Germany because HE didn’t have a plan? How can he speak? He, who ended up a veteran of two wars before he decided to calm down enough to have a semblance of a relationship with our family– 

–and other scathing, self-centered, self-righteous sentiments.

All of this happened, as far as I can tell, because he had no plan.  I haven’t been through what he’s been through. There are some schools of thought that say I’ll be a shitty writer as a result. Maybe I should stop. Maybe I’ll have nothing to write about unless I divorce my family and lead a dangerous, sluttish existence peppered with drug-infused club scenes and war-zones.

We’re told to write what we know because only an authentic voice will resonate with people that have lived what we’ve written. My brother has lived through experiences and stories I could never dream. There’s also a strong chance he’ll hate everything I write. So far, my family has been supportive of my being a writer, but I don’t think they like my work all that much. That’s ok, though. Not my audience. 

At first I was sad, thinking that if I where better at this, my brother and people like him might become my audience. It doesn’t work that way.

The scenes that do land well are the ones in which I could translate my own life experience into something the characters would go through.  I haven’t spoken to felons, used magic, or visited rural German communities; but I’ve been angry. I can write angry.

Stick to what you know, but don’t stop your imagination from telling its tale.  What you know is your foundation — build up from there.

“Write what you know.” 
— Mark Twain

“Imagination is more important than knowledge; for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
— Albert Einstein

“I mean when you look at ‘Midnight Express’ the film, you don’t see any good Turks at all.  It creates this overall impression that Turkey is this horrific place. Well, that’s not fair to Turkey. I love Istanbul.  I actually spent quite a bit of time in Istanbul before I was arrested.”
— Billy Hayes


9 thoughts on “What you know is only the beginning

  1. REDdog

    I would read it because you wrote it and you would probably draw me into your audience as a result. Would your brother’s sentiments change if you were recognised with literary awards and landed a 6 figure publishing deal?

    1. Setsu Post author

      I think he genuinely wants me to succeed, otherwise why take the effort to argue with me about it?

      As far as whether or not he’ll like/read the material himself… He knows his own mind. If his sons read it in their early teens and liked it, then maybe. He’s more a “House of Leaves” kinda guy.

  2. toconnell88

    Completely agree. It’s such a misnomer that we should only write what we’ve experienced first-hand. As you’ve rightly identified, experiencing the root emotion behind a situation is enough (well, it is when coupled with talent and imagination).

    Your brother sounds like a driven (if slightly tactless!) guy. I’m glad you have your family’s general support.

    Hey, general question: Is any of your fiction out there on the net? I don’t think I’ve ever read any, but I’d love to see what it’s about.

    1. Setsu Post author

      My brother is pretty astounding all around. When we talk, we have to make an effort to keep it light or it turns into that sort of exchange right quick.

      As far as my own work — nothing out there but this blog at the moment. I’ll be sure to make a big fuss when I have a link to show you. Thank you so much for asking, you rock. 🙂

  3. jumpingfromcliffs

    I’d say “Write what you know” doesn’t have to mean the actual experiences and places either. I’m pretty sure Tolkien never actually met a dragon in a lair filled with gold 🙂 But he’d probably been scared at some point, so had the knowledge to write Bilbo being terrified. I tend to interpret it more as “write from the heart”, I think it speaks to writing in a way that is true to who you and and how you experience the world.

  4. margitsage

    I love the Einstein quote. And I agree with jumpingfromcliffs. Writing what you know doesn’t mean writing about cubicles (per say), but write angry, bored, etc. You can find character (and setting) inspiration anywhere.

  5. woodlandwhimsy

    I honestly think that most families feel uncomfortable and not quite sure what to do with a person in their midst that is different(whether it is an artist in a “normal” family or a lawyer in an “arty” family. It is really wonderful to have their support, even if they don’t get it.

    1. Setsu Post author

      That is true. My family are all artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists, soldiers… all different but all supportive.


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