Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of Kids in the Hall. The comedy team, which had its heyday in the early ‘90s, reemerged last month with a new series on Amazon Prime, and I’ve enjoyed their hilarious new material as well as revisiting the stuff I’ve been laughing at since the reruns on Comedy Central when I was in junior high.
I find The Kids to be fascinating not just because of their edgy, borderline offensive humor, but because they’re able to create such material while still being honest and even empathetic about their subjects.
A big part of this comes from their ability to be inspired by real life. Their recent interview with Rolling Stone begins with a glimpse into the writing process that leads to their bizarre brand of humor.
I quote it at length below partly to illustrate my point, but mostly because it’s hilarious:
It starts with one of them casually saying, “Write what you know” — it may be Mark McKinney, slightly leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling, or it might be Bruce McCulloch, who’s wandering around the conference room, checking his phone as it charges and idly munching on a pastry. Whoever said it first, it’s definitely Kevin McDonald who quickly jumps in and, as if on cue, immediately chants, “Write what you know!” He says it again, at which point Dave Foley joins in as well. “Write what you know!” “Write what you know!” McKinney and McCulloch, both grinning, start singing along as well: “Write what you know! Write what you know! Write what you know!” Scott Thompson is too busy laughing to harmonize at first, until he finally composes himself, clears his throat, and then beautifully bellows out, in the most operatic tenor imaginable: “Wriiiiite! Whaaat! Yoooouuuu! Knoooooowwwwwwww!!!”
“Write what you know” is a mantra not just for the Kids in the Hall, but a lot of writers. Surely, you’ve sat in some kind of class where it was inevitably uttered by an instructor.
It’s a good rule, too. Direct experience is a great source of material for stories, poems, and essays. It’s also clear that there is an authenticity in the Kids’ material that resonates with audiences.
However, with no disrespect intended toward The Kids, I would argue that the “write what you know” principle can be limiting to writers. In particular, it can make them feel like they are only limited to their personal experiences.
After all, what if nothing about your personal experiences strikes you as very interesting? And even if it is interesting, what if you don’t want to write about it? As a result, you’re left going in circles, wondering if you even have any material at all.
This gets even more frustrating if there’s something you want to write about, but don’t feel like you have the street cred to do it. Or, even worse, you try to write about it, only to be told that you don’t have the authority.
I have experienced a lot of this as a historical fiction writer. Can I really write about places I’ve never lived in or time periods I never experienced? Wouldn’t it just be easier if I stayed in my own backyard?
Again, there’s some truth to this. If you want to write about things you have never experienced, you need to be willing to do the work to research it and get your facts right. But should it be totally off limits? No.
I think Write what you know is a good axiom in theory. But there’s a better one, one that will cause writing what you know to happen naturally, as an outflow from this prime directive.
Here it is:
Write what you love.
Last weekend, I attended a writing retreat sponsored by The Habit, a writing community I’ve been a part of for the last two years. One of the many ideas we discussed in our time together was that although writing is hard, it often isn’t hard in the way we think it is.
As Habit leader Jonathan Rogers explained, “Writing problems tend to be solvable. They only become unsolvable when we pile on top of them our internal struggles and other unsolvable problems.”
One of the biggest struggles that writers deal with is the false notion that we have certain expectations or standards of success to meet with our work.
Will people be interested in the topic or story? Will I be able to get an agent? Is what I’m writing publishable? Does anyone really care, anyway?
It’s easy to get so bogged down in this thought spiral of expectations that no real writing gets done, which makes the alleged “writing problems” impossible to deal with.
And write what you know is one of those expectations.
What if the thing you are curious about, passionate about, or delighted by isn’t something based in personal or direct experience?
What if you aren’t an “expert” in something or don’t have the immediate knowledge to write about it without spending hours doing research?
And even if you do spend the hours on research, who’s to say anyone will be interested in what you have to say?
These questions are all easily resolved if you remove any concerns about people’s opinions, publishability, or book deals and simply focus on what you are delighted by and what fuels your writing, no matter what that is.
If you love your story, you’ll take the opportunity to intimately know it. And because of that, other people will love it, too.
I didn’t write The Goodbye-Love Generation because I wanted to write a deep, thought-provoking novel that makes a profound statement about the effects of the Vietnam protest movement.
I wrote it because I love my hometown of Kent, Ohio. I was born fourteen years after the Kent State shootings, which figure prominently in the stories, but it was worth it to do the painstaking research and interviews required of me to portray the aspects of the book that I had not directly lived through.
You don’t have to write about something you know. You just have to write about something you love enough to know the things you still need to discover.
What about you? Do you shy away from any topics because you’re concerned about how equipped you are to write about them, or whether you’ll be able to get published or win acclaim from readers?
Feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments section.
Also . . . do you want to write about those topics, but aren’t sure how to get started?
Let’s have a Zoom meeting one on one to make a game plan.
Here’s a link to my calendar. My real, live calendar, not some gimmicky link. Grab an appointment slot and let’s get you started.
It’s totally free and you’ll get the direction you need to impact your readers with the things you love.