Write What You Know
August 7th, 2019
by Josh Miller
I’m betting that, if you’re a writer and particularly if you’re a screenwriter, you’ve heard this phrase before and to be frank, it kind of pisses you off. You think, rightly, that you should pen whatever the hell you want. You’ll get no argument from me.
Maybe you have a great idea for a super hero movie or a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. You don’t have any super powers and you don’t live in a dystopian future, yet you have a fertile imagination and can research the shit out of anything.
And even if you haven’t lived a particular experience, you can always put aspects of yourself in your characters and through them, convey your innermost thoughts and feelings. In fact, in some ways it’s more liberating to have this degree of separation.
I can’t find fault with the logic and as a screenwriter, it’s pretty much what I’ve done my whole career. As I'm basically a journeyman, for me getting paid to write is like getting paid to eat a Turtle Blizzard, meaning only that I like to stretch a metaphor.
But. But. But. I think about how many ideas I’ve had where the movie got made before I could launch mine out of the starting block. Like the hundredth monkey story, it seems as if when an idea’s time has come, it spontaneously arises in disparate places on our planet. Sort of like the airplane and the telephone.
So that’s a little tough on us high concept, ace researching, one degree of separation screenwriters. We can do a lot of work and find that we’re just one of many scribes hound-dogging the same scent at any give moment in time. Zeitgeist is a bitch.
What’s the preventative? Well, if you write stories directly out of your own life experience, nobody is going to write those same stories at the same time—or ever, for that matter. So that takes care of one problem. But it creates another one. Actually, more of a challenge. Which is… you have to open a vein.
That’s right. You have to bleed. Because guess what—even though you’re going to fictionalize your protagonist, everyone’s going to know it’s you. And yet if you want to connect with your readers/audience, you’re going to have to be authentic.
For some writers this is second nature. But for the rest of us, it’s hard, because we’re private. The idea of being vulnerable, truly sharing, is an anathema. What if it sucks? What if they laugh? There’s no degree of separation. No protection.
One way to deal with this is to be old. When you’re old, you could care less what people think. That’s why seniors are so refreshingly blunt. And we love them for it. But admittedly it’s not a great solution if you’re young or middle-aged.
And just to further twist in the knife, ideally you should write about your biggest secret that, if made public, would potentially be embarrassing. That takes cojones. Because if it fails, it’s not your script that failed. It’s you. And your secret is out.
But wait. It could also succeed. There is that possibility. In fact, it might succeed because of your candor. You might be amazed to learn how many people out there are harboring the same or similar secrets and will be grateful that you had the guts to speak your truth. This may be what ultimately sets you and your material apart.
Is this “writing what you know”? By our narrow definition, YES. So… should you write what you know? Well as stated above, you don’t have to. But. But. But.
About the Author
Award-winning writer/producer Josh Miller is the author of Stuck! Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again. He has penned or produced television programs for Paramount, Lifetime, Hallmark, Dick Clark Productions, Viacom, Disney Channel, PBS, and Showtime, as well as feature films released by Universal, Warner Bros., Momentum, eOne, Equinoxe, First Look, DARO, and Vision Films. Miller continues to provide freelance script consulting services to screenwriters, producers, networks, and studios. Visit his website at joshmillerscript.com.