Written by Sarah Yoon 

citytree‘Write what you know’ is a hackneyed maxim. When people learn that I’m a writer, they grasp onto the one thing they know about writing. They ask, ‘write what you know’—that’s a thing, right? And I tell them yes. Kind of.

If you take it at face value, the phrase is reductionist. Stick just with what you know and your protagonists will be writers who hang out at coffee shops all the time. You need to know about the world if you’re going to write about it, so how could such limiting phrase be so common? Instead of stunting our creativity with these assumptions, let’s look at ‘write what you know’ as stage one of the creative process. Let’s ask the most basic question possible: what do you know?

‘Know Thyself’

One of the greatest storytelling tools is both surprisingly accessible and frustratingly obscure: yourself. It’s easy to know facts. Sure you have two siblings and you enjoy blueberry smoothies, but knowing yourself is more complicated. How much do you know about your own mental and emotional processes? Your view of the world has been nurtured since birth, and each experience further shaped it. In the 1800s, Freud introduced the idea that self-knowledge is hidden deep within your subconscious—the superego and id—and now we take this discovery for granted. Your inner workings are invisible to you until they’re teased out.

People who journal regularly have a better grasp than others. If you ponder why you feel or think certain things, you’re well on your way to knowing yourself. When you understand your psychosis, you engage in storytelling with a stronger foundation. Even your values are creative fodder. They help you contrast realities with ideals, allowing you to communicate your experiences with others and create an empathetic bond.

Journaling with a Kick

Ponder your life experiences and put them to work:

  1. Delve through your memory and think through your hobbies, jobs, friends, family, romantic relationships, education, skills, values, beliefs, travel, etc.
  2. List your resources. Choose one of the above and brainstorm. Find 10+ examples and keep them in your inspiration journal for later review.
  3. Expand your thoughts. When you’ve brainstormed through each topic, choose one specific example that sparks your interest. Write a page on it, exploring anything that unearths a memory, strikes a nerve or exposes a hidden strength.
  4. Analyze yourself. Ask why you feel or think certain things and ponder how you came to these conclusions. Understanding how the heart and mind works is important for creating engaging stories and rounded characters.
  5. Choose another item, and another. Whenever you need to process further, go back to your lists. Dive into your memory and explore the depth and breadth of your mind.


Want to read more? Dig into stage two on external inspirations! Or learn about “Problematic Plot Diagrams” and ponder “The Fault in our Stars: The Relationship between Empathy and Emulation

Art provided by Heather McMillen: heathermcmillen.tumblr.com