That Old Adage ‘Write What You Know’? – Hogwash!

Guest Blog: Shakespeare wasn’t a Danish Prince, Updike never ran a Toyota dealership, William Goldman didn’t rob banks or move to Bolivia …

In the ‘90s, Hollywood gave me a conflicting, recurrent tip: “Write what you know.”      

Between Rose Mehlman and Hollywood, someone was right, and someone was wrong. In order to decide, all we have is track record.       

Quick story: When John Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette, Rose Mehlman said, “I have a feeling he’s going to have his hands full with her.” Clearly, even when her opinions are based on absolutely nothing, she’s usually right. So let’s stipulate that Rose Mehlman was the one who was right. When writing something fictional, you should not write what you know. You should imagine a world you don’t know and make stuff up.

But somehow, in Hollywood, "write what you know" is a perennial bestseller among local rules militating against creativity. It’s right up there with: "You can’t make this stuff up" and "Truth is stranger than fiction."    

Shakespeare wasn’t a Danish Prince, Updike never ran a Toyota dealership, William Goldman didn’t rob banks or move to Bolivia. They wrote what they didn’t know because, if you’re someone who can make this stuff up, fiction is not only stranger than truth, it comes with a much cleaner story structure.

(Oh, man … Ray Bradbury just died. 91 years old. He wrote such a beautiful piece in the New Yorker just a couple of weeks ago. See? You can live a long happy life by not living according to the rules.)    

Hollywood’s religious belief in "write what you know" is deeply troubling because this is a creative community. It has to be because everyone says so: “What do I do? I’m a (line producer) (grip) (transportation coordinator) … but I have a lot of creative input.” So let’s stipulate that Hollywood is a creative community.      

You’d think in a creative community, imagination would be encouraged. No, no, no, no, no. The exact opposite is the strange truth: Our creative people are encouraged — taught! — to be less creative. You can’t walk through a Starbucks without seeing someone writing in a journal to fulfill a writer’s boot-camp requirement.

Come on! Most people quit keeping journals because they’ve bored the hemoglobin out of themselves. A budding writer would benefit more from writing the personal journal of a budding houseplant. At least it would entail conjecture, empathy, imagination. 

Sorry: We like our creativity "based on a true story from actual events ripped from the headlines."    

If you’ve been waiting for a TV pilot hyped as “a show ripped from the fully-stocked imagination of David Milch” or a Wes Anderson movie “based on stuff that not only never happened but could never happen,” join the club. 

The reality is that we’re a lot closer to a movie poster with the tagline: "Based on a hairball of actual events because, don’t worry, America, we would never stick you with something totally made up unless it’s something like 'The Avengers,' and when you think about it, we’ve been reading comic books so long 'The Avengers' script practically counts as writing what we know."

The temptation to just give up altogether is strongest when you look at the ultimate evolutionary outgrowth of "write what you know": reality TV. Kill the writing, and substitute people you don’t want to know. But every year, a couple of pristinely creative products sneak through — Breaking Bad or Moonrise Kingdom — and writers go back to making stuff up. 

In the end, it’s the only way to reach the one goal that makes writing worthwhile: hatching a story that’s smarter than its author.