To me, ‘write what you know’ means using as raw material for a story a feeling or experience that’s genuinely my own, rather than an idea I picked up from from a book or from the news, something that’s external and not internal, and that has originally belonged to someone else.
I think ‘write what you know’ is especially important for your first novel, and that as you become an experienced writer, you can go on to write what you don’t know, but only after you’ve spoken your personal truths.
On First Novels
It seems to me that most great first novels tell an intimate personal story. Think of Ernest Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, or Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Those authors have lived the story before telling it. Of course they invented many beautiful lies, but they placed them on a solid foundation made of personal truths.
The Name of the Rose appears to be a notable exception. It’s a philosophical story about books, set many centuries ago, telling of strange deaths in a remote monastery. That doesn’t sound too personal. But once you check Umberto Eco’s biography and learn that he has been an academic all his life, and has 50,000 volumes in his two libraries, you understand that his first novel is really personal, about his great love for books.
Truth and Lies
I think that when you base your story on something you’ve gone through, the story becomes more intimate, and the protagonist more sympathetic, and that this will compensate, to some extent, for literary faults caused by inexperience. Moreover, it will make the writing more easy and more relaxed, because you’re not writing for others, but for yourself.
The plot, the characters, and the setting can be completely unlike the story of your life, the people around you, and the place where you live. But the thing that keeps them all together has to be genuinely you.
I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it. – Toni Morrison
When I decided to write a novel I started with a big, philosophical fantasy, and I wanted to make it as complex and as sophisticated as I could. But as I wrote lies, lies, lies, I realized I was trying to outsmart more intelligent and more experienced writers, in making writing a competition of ideas against others, in doing my best to distance myself from feelings that I tried to deny, thinking them not worthy of a book. But it’s exactly those feelings that give birth to great books.
Then I shifted my focus to my emotions, and put the philosophical fantasy aside, not to work on it again until I had told the personal story first. I went on to analyse the profound feeling of heartbreak I felt at that time, to understand it better, with all its causes and effects, and by doing so to get over it. The writing became smoother, and I believed it it, and for each ten beautiful lies I had a heavy truth to keep the balance.
Nothing is Wasted
What’s great about telling a personal story is that whether it will work or not you will not regret writing it, because it teaches you much about yourself. And probably that’s what writing is all about. Self-discovery.