Portal Blog

Portal and Writing What You Know

What do I know?

Write what you know” is advice often suggested to writers, but what does it really mean? Author Nathan Englander, however, argues the downside of “writing what you know”: “I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s also the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice … Why do we love those books[we love], why do they change us, why do they touch our hearts, why do they hold so much meaning? Because they are truer than truth; because there is a great knowing within them, emotion. …  if you’ve known longing, then you can write longing.

In a New York Times column Mohsin Hamid argues that “what we know isn’t a static commodity,” and, in that same column, Zoe Heller says an author can also draw from the lives of others, from research, and from imagination. Raymond Carver suggests “a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

Depending on the genre of your submission to Portal, the proportion of real-life elements, research, and imagination will undoubtedly vary. Creative non-fiction describes real events, but utilizes an fictional techniques. Fiction is often inspired by, and draws upon fact. Both can be poetic and as dramatic as staged plays. 

My own script, The Only Moll for Miles, published in the 2018 issue, is a combination of all of the above and though I wasn’t alive in 30s-era BC during the Depression, I could imagine my characters, infuse them with a certain amount of my own emotional DNA, and research the setting. It was not what I knew, but what I knew I wanted to write. Sometimes that’s enough 🙂 

I hope you find your own elixir of inspiration, memory, and fact and send it along to Portal by Nov 30th so that our team and our readers can enjoy it. Authors may debate the meaning or accuracy of the adage, but if it gets you to write, it will always be worth considering. 

– Chyna Moore, Fundraising and Event Coordinator

The first page of the script Only Moll For Miles
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