Beginning writers (and noders) are often told to "write what they know." On the surface, this admonition seems
wise, as it discourages novices from making stuff up
or blathering endlessly on topics about which they know nothing.
After all, there's nothing worse than an article that begins "I don't know
much about this, but..." (except perhaps a piece that omits this
confession when it's really quite necessary). On E2 in particular, it's
the only way we can obtain some information: if you're an expert in some
obscure field (1st century Chinese history, MRI physics, whatever)
then you damn well better write about it, because nobody else will.
Unfortunately, some writers use this principle to justify rabid
narcissism: deciding (apparently) that they only know about
themselves, they churn out dozens of morbidly emotional pieces overfilled with
excruciatingly banal details about their putatively fascinating life.
Two well-known writers have spoken out against the
narcissistic interpretation of this principle. In The
Elements of Style, E. B. White twice admonishes writers to leave
themselves out of their writing:
Place yourself in the background. Write in a
way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the
writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer
will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the
To air one's views gratuitously...is to imply
that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the
In a recent talk, Ken Kesey put it more bluntly:
People tell you to write what you know, to write about
yourself--bullshit, I say. Don't write about yourself. You are
boring. If you were really interesting, you wouldn't have time to sit
around and write a fucking novel.
This principle doesn't mean that you should pick topics at random:
writers do best when they write about topics in which they're interested.
Nor should it be interpreted to mean that you should never use
personal anecdotes. On the contrary--anecdotes can effectively illustrate
a particular point, bringing it home to the reader in a way that
abstract rhetoric cannot, and they can provide a window into
the lives of others, letting you know that you're not the only one who
feels or thinks a certain way. Without this higher purpose, a personal anecdote by itself, while potentially interesting, provides
no vital facts, imparts no new ideas, and adds little that is timeless or enduring....which is why we have a separate place for them on