"Write what you know" is probably one of the most clichéd sayings in writerdom.
I've heard a few different takes on it, as well as a thorough defense of its opposite: Write what you don't know. (Intriguing, right?)
Like any cliché, it can get a little irritating. (Yes, I've definitely rolled my eyes at it.)
But. When we really lean into "write what you know," it can be one of the most powerful and freeing guides to our writing.
Also? It can generate a bunch of quality ideas.
Which is why it totally belongs in Idea Camp.
Here is the truest true thing about my best work: it all is closely tied to what I know very well.
Especially what I know well emotionally. The stuff that I've seen to be true in my life. What I know about people, about power, about place, about change.
About family. About loneliness. About myself.
THAT is the kind of what you know that drives really good ideas, and really compelling stories.
Writing what we don't know is magnificent when it comes to new settings, fantastical beings, and villainy.
But as writers (and observers! and artists!), part of our job description is to truthfully share the things that we know the best.
Meaning: What our hearts know.
When I encounter that kind of knowing in a novel, it rings in my head and heart long after I finish reading. You know the feeling?
When another writer has taken the time to show exactly what it looks like: to be here, to be alive. To feel small, to be alone, to try hard. To get bruised and then to get up again. To fight for what matters.
THOSE are the stories we need. And that's what it means (to me, at least) to write what you know.
Which means some of the best stuff that you will write comes straight out of your own past.
The strongest, brightest, strangest, sharpest memories.
The places and people and relationships and circumstances that you knew most intimately.
That is what will drive your material. And that is going to lead to your best, clearest writing.
Mmmmmmm!! I'm excited.
Let's hear from two helpful guides before we dive in.
When most writers try to write down their ideas for stories, they usually only capture a tiny bit of the work from a faraway, not creative place in their minds. ...
Do not save up ideas. Do not write about the work from a distance. Instead of writing notes about an idea like story about babysitter, write: Dana said, "You didn't pay me last time, either, Heather." And she smacked that gum which seemed to be a weird striped gum, green and purple, both.
Write down what you hear. Write down what you see. ...
Transition out of ideas and into images. You will be amazed at the results you get when you start doing this.
Let me just say: she is totally right about that.
It is so tempting to leave our ideas in those distant terms. "Write about my second grade teacher. Write about recess in sixth grade. Write about my friend-who-wasn't-a-friend in high school."
Velocity shows up only when we're working in images. In sounds, smells, textures. In the emotions, in exactly how they feel.
So, for this list we're about to make, paint your images as richly as you can.
What's going onto the list? Memories.
Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his subconscious. These became fodder for his stories.
Start your own list. Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your own past. ...
Each of these is a germ of a possible story or novel. They resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.
(How much do I love the idea of Ray Bradbury's list of nouns?? Ahhhh. So much.)
I love Bell's point: that these memories have a natural resonance.
Also, the things that our hearts have learned are tied to real, factual moments: Nouns. Verbs. Images.
The concrete stuff that we'll communicate in our writing.
So today, we're going to start our Memory List. You can start with a bunch of nouns, if you like Bradbury's approach, and see what comes up.
Or—because I like a good question to chew on—check out my list of prompts below.
Think through your past with each question. And if that feels totally overwhelming (it does for me!), try scanning your history in seven-year chunks. Age 0-7. Then 8-14. 15-21. And so on.
Try to answer each question with as much imagery as you can. Let your heart talk.
... But before we make our lists, one more quick thing. This is meant to be a list of things that you feel willing to write about. This isn't about the stories and memories that we're not actually ready to write about.
So if there are dark, sad, terrible truths in your past that you don't feel ready to share, then they don't belong on this list. Okay? Keep processing, keep healing. You don't have to write about those yet.
This list is truly just for the things that you're ready to bring out in stories. (Also, if this is you, then I wish I could give you a big hug. Truly.)
Ready? Grab your pen and paper, grab a fresh document on your computer, and let's dive in!
For each span of years, think about what stands out the most in your memory. Especially:
- What places meant a lot to you? Where did you live? Where did you visit? Where else did you go: school, church, camp, friends' houses, family, vacations... Describe them with as much imagery as you can remember. The sounds, the smells, the tastes.
- What were you most afraid of during these years? (Again, press for the images, not just the ideas...)
- What embarrassments do you remember?
- What most delighted you?
- What happened on the "happiest day of your life" in this time period? What made it a great day? What were the highlights? Capture the sensory details of that kind of day.
- What achievements did you have? What are you still proud of?
- How did you like to spend your time? What hobbies, what activities?
- Which people and which relationships were the most important to you (in good ways or bad ways)? Who was helpful? Who, um, wasn't? What specific memories do you have about these people?
- If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be, and why? What would happen next?
- What haunts you from this time? And what do you still feel happy about?
- What else do you remember? What else won't leave you alone? Nothing is too small of a detail.
What I love about this list is that we've already done the emotional research.
This is the stuff we know! We've already done the hard work of learning it and living it. It's time to turn those experiences into vivid scenes, characters that resonate, high moments in our novels.
What I love about using our memories for ideas is how versatile they are.
They can be the tiniest ideas that we sprinkle into our stories—the little things we add to make the scene feel more real, vivid, and lived in.
Or they can be the whole point of the novel itself. The theme. The main characters. The villain. The setting. The conflict.
That's why no memory is too big, too small, too localized, or too weird. (I love the too weird ones!!)
After you've taken your first run at this list, give yourself a bit of a break—a few hours, a few days—and then read it through and add more to it.
Hopefully you'll see situations, characters, circumstances, details, moments, and settings that are just begging to be used.
Maybe you'll write them in clear, memoir-esque detail.
Or you'll use your history, but totally transformed, turned inside out and backwards. Reinvented. Fantastical. The funhouse-mirror version of your past.
This is ridiculously fun to do, by the way.
When I think of ways to switch up my past and use it in a story, I get the most incredible glee. It's still one of the best parts of being a writer, being able to use (redeem, vindicate) your past.
Okay. Want to get even more crazy? YES YOU DO and so do I.
Let's have some fun. Choose an item from two of the lists, and mash 'em up in your mind. Or pick an item from all three!
Do a little mix-and-match action, and just see what starts to come up. Try to imagine it as fully as possible: full images, full senses.
Jot down notes, and chase anything that quickens your heart.
Like: how much do I love the mash-up of my stern, much-wrinkled second grade teacher, who was always writing my name up on the board for talking (memory list), plus the circus (curiosity list)?
Stir in a bit of how cooking and sharing meals bring us together (major interests list), and suddenly I have some AMAZING images, unusual characters, and hilarious conflicts brewing in my mind!
This is the fun part! Let yourself loose, and see what connections you can make between the three lists.
Maybe there's your next novel in there. Or a whole series.
Happy idea finding!
Want to do a little more digging into how you're already an original, full of ideas? (Because you totally are!) Check out these two posts: they're right up your alley! How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter and Stop Dodging Your Best Work (Celebrate Where You've Been).