Every writer has heard this advice before. In fact, Editor McClory did a whole blog post on researching a topic and then writing about said topic. And while she made some really great points, nothing can replace first-hand experience.
But just because you’ve experienced something doesn’t mean you know how to write about it. This may come as a surprise for some of you, but you’re not the center of the world and your experiences don’t determine everyone’s experiences.
That’s not to say your story isn’t valuable – it is. You are the only one your life happens to.
That all being said, storytelling often becomes a long, tedious event when the teller rambles, has pointless tangents and doesn’t make any sense.
For example, I (Editor Joe) was recently trapped in a parking lot. It may not seem possible, since I drive a SUV, but even my tank of a car can’t drive over concrete barriers. When it comes time for me to tell the story, I’m not going to mention why I was in Boston or the florescent orange of the cones blocking one pathway.
Instead, I mention the deserted parking lot, the labyrinth-like roadways I had to follow, the complete surprise when I discovered I had gone in a circle somehow and ended back in that frustrating parking lot.
When writers “write what you know”, they have to tackle an very unusual problem: every experience is unique but stories have to be universal.
Readers relate to characters, events, moments in a story that reflect their own experiences. Everyone has been alone once in their life, everyone has gotten lost and everyone has been frustrated by a puzzle.
As a storyteller, my job is to remind my listeners of those moments in their life while I share the tale of the Never-Ending Parking Lot.
Write what you know, but realize that you have to write what your readers have felt.