Should you write what you know? Natalie Goldberg and Donald Maass weigh in

Show, don’t tell. Kill your darlings. Develop a thick skin.

Most of the standard-issue “rules” of prose were handed out to us, one by one, in our first creative writing classes, and we’ve all heard them thousands of times since—sometimes to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. So when it comes down to it, which of the rules should you actually follow? (Admittedly, the painful killing of certain darlings is one of my weakest suits. I love my darlings.)

For the September issue of WD, we asked 10 writing pros to riff in support of one of 10 rules, and to riff against another—with an ultimate goal of (hopefully) showing that when it comes to rules and writing, everything is anything but clear-cut. Rather, it’s all about how you adapt a “rule,” and make or break it as only you can.
On this WD Mag Wednesday, we bring you the battle of Write What You Know, followed by a regular writing prompt. To read the nine other rules in the feature that includes pieces by Steve Almond, James Scott Bell, John Dufresne and others, check out the September issue of WD.

?Round 1: Donald Maass and Natalie Goldberg

To be sure, this timeless rule can produce bland protagonists, sleepy settings and plots so mild that if you blink you’ll miss them. But in my view, the rule doesn’t mean to record what’s ordinary, but rather to bring out in your story what is personal, passionate and true.

Those of you who are underwater demolition experts or brain surgeons may be feeling smug. Your story already is ahead of the pack, right? Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. Exotic subject matter or an exciting milieu do not necessarily make a story gripping. If you’ve ever read a dull biography or an historical novel that’s too research-heavy, then you know what I mean.

“Write what you know” means to write what you see differently, feel profoundly and know is important for the rest of us to get. You don’t need to have lived an extraordinary life or have a unique subject. You need only an original outlook and a fresh purpose for writing.

In fiction, a small-town librarian can be captivating if she, say, classifies her neighbors according to the Dewey Decimal System. In nonfiction, what’s interesting about Alaskan sled dogs? Well, nothing, really—until you capture the beauty and tenderness of the human-animal bond and detail the life-and-death drama of the Iditarod.

The point is, writing what you know means finding what is extraordinary in that which is ordinary and, conversely, discovering what is universal, meaningful and human in that which is uncommon.

Hey, you can always research what you don’t know. But you can’t fake what’s in your heart. Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.    

Donald Maass is a literary agent whose New York agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the United States and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and The Fire in Fiction. He also is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.



“Write what you know” is a poor adage for a writer. Think about how little we know. We should not limit ourselves. This is why we have imaginations. Clouds, zebras, grilled cheese sandwiches, water, mountains and shoes don’t. Only humans are gifted with imagination. We should exercise our human potential, stretch ourselves beyond our borders.

When you write what you know, you stay in control. One of the first things I encourage my writing students to do is to lose control—say what they want to say, break structure. I often assign them to write about topics like, “what I’m not thinking of,” and “what I don’t remember.” Assignments like these lead to the underbelly, to the dark, rich, hidden life of your wild mind. You may know your neighborhood, but what lurks beyond the familiar, safe streets?

A writer’s job is to give the reader a larger vision of the world. We need to move into the mind of someone in the Congo, Portugal, Brazil, feel into the life of grass and bees, conjure up a horse’s day. All things are speaking. They have different languages; maybe a rock completes the pronunciation of only one syllable every two years. Our job as writers is to listen, to come home to the four corners of the earth.

Be curious: Who is that woman buying five lemons and two peaches at the grocery counter? What does her purse contain? And what does she dream at night?

Only you, the writer, care. Don’t let her disappear out in the parking lot and into oblivion.     

Natalie Goldberg is the author of 11 books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold more than a million and a half copies, Thunder and Lightning, Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Wild Mind. She teaches writing workshops and retreats at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, N.M. View her schedule at

* * *

WRITING PROMPT: Between the Lines
Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a
response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

Write a conversation in which your character is terrified to say what he really means, and hopes his partner can read between the lines.

Have the last line mean everything.


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5 thoughts on “Should you write what you know? Natalie Goldberg and Donald Maass weigh in

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  2. Amal Saud

    "Where were you all day" Lily cried out upon the sight of her husband Chris on the door step
    He didn’t respond and instead he looked at his wife’s friend Bony" can you look after the kids for a while we’re just goanna take a walk around the block"

    "You know I went to that appointment with real estate agent. I couldn’t wait for you, you know the prices are rising within seconds"
    "Found anything you like" Chris replied.
    "Oh Chris I’ve found the perfect little place," her Face lit up as she continued" It’s near the highway so it will take less time for to get to your work"
    "I don’t think that will be important anymore" his voice Chocking up.
    "What?"Lily exclaimed " Chris did you get fired"
    "N-Nothing of that sort" Chris replied nervously "In fact we got that huge account with Simons Company I told you about"
    "Oh my God Chris that’s amazing you guys have been chasing them for weeks, Is this why you’re late? Were you boys celebrating?"
    "Yes, we partied too hard" He sighed as if he was trying to not let it slip "Go on tell me more about this house"
    "Will it has two bedrooms one beautiful master bedroom oh you’ll have to see it to believe how wonderful it is but there’s no extra room for your study too bad"
    "Doesn’t matter…W-What about the garden"
    "The Garden is just perfect it’s not too small to have a barbeque party and not too big that it might be a bother to take care of it"
    Chris put his arms around Lily and said "Excellent" he sighed. "With what I will gain from this recent account we could afford a place like that, it seems great"
    "Oh Chris you have no idea all the time I was there I was just picturing you and the kids in that garden on Sundays you’ll be on the girl and…"
    She stopped when she saw tears rolling down Chris Face and he tried to turn away but she placed her hand on his shoulder and said" Chris what’s wrong you haven’t been yourself all night what’s wrong you scaring me"
    Chris decided to put all his guards down as he sat on the pavement" we went to the bar down the street but I but All I wanted to do was to come home I wanted to leave so bad to tell you everything I left drunk as hell Lord knows I shouldn’t have"

    Lily’s eyes open wide and her Jaw dropped and Chris continued "I was driving and..There was this guy on bicycle that came out of nowhere I couldn’t stop the car he flew like ten feet before his body slammed the car before he finally hit the floor " I got out of the car to check whether he’s Still alive" Chris started crying and Lily sobbed too and started to shake him;"Then what Chris, Then what" she screamed.
    "He was dead"

  3. Lily

    “There’s something I’ve got to say.” His voice shakes as he says this. I cringe. When his voice shakes, he seems even more out of control.
    “It’s just that…how can I say this?”
    “I don’t know. Just spit it out.”
    “Well, the other day…that is to say, recently…I was walking down the street and I saw these two people…a man and a woman, I mean…and they just sort of looked so happy…contended, I thought.”
    Where is this going? I give him a smile, determined to keep my kind facade. Fake as it is, his face lights up. “Well, they were probably in love, right?”
    “Exactly!” He looks about to jump up and down.
    “That’s all you wanted to say? That you thought they were in love?”
    His face falls again. “No…no, that’s not quite what I meant…”
    “What did you mean then?”
    “I mean that…that being in love seems like such a worthy pursuit.”
    “What do you mean by that?”
    “Don’t you think? I would be overjoyed if I was…you know, in love.”
    “Go out and fall in love then,” I say, and turn to go.
    “No – no, don’t leave!” He sounds panicky, so I turn back around.
    I’m getting even more impatient than before, so I say, “What do you want to say? You aren’t being very eloquent.”
    A wrinkle appears in his forehead. “I know…I’m sorry…I’m just afraid if I say what I mean then –”
    I cut him off. “Don’t be afraid. Whatever it is, I’ll listen.”
    “That’s not the problem…” He scuffs his shoe against the sidewalk.
    “Just say it!” I hear the edge in my voice, and he takes an involuntary step back.
    And then he finally spits it out. “I love you!”

  4. Mark James

    I think I’ll write what I know. . . no. . . yeah. . . no.

    Zac, are the prompts getting harder or I am getting older? The last few have really made me s-t-r-e-t-c-h. It’s great.

    “How’d it go?”

    Jack closed the door behind him, leaned against it. “I dropped it.”

    “Good,” Roman said. “Drop point okay?”

    “You have your gun on you?” Jack flicked his eyes over Roman’s solid-packed body, looking for stray bulges.

    Roman shot him a hard look. “Yeah. Why?”

    “Is it loaded?”

    “What’s going on, little brother?”

    Jack licked his lips. “It’s kind of funny how it happened.”

    “All right.” Roman shrugged his broad shoulders. “Make me laugh.”

    Thoughts flashed across Jack’s mind: the months of planning; the agonized cries of men in basement back rooms, almost drowning out Roman’s low, insistent voice; long nights of hacking a satellite upload from a Swiss bank. They’d walked away with enough to finance ten decadent lifetimes in every beautiful corner of the globe, but no way to extract the funds.

    Roman’s silence seemed to shrink the hotel room, pull the walls in, make them too solid. “I was on my way to the drop,” Jack said, “but traffic was bad.”

    The wall behind Roman was taken up with a floor to ceiling window. Twenty-nine stories down, the screeching brakes of a city bus mixed with blaring sirens and horns.

    “What did you do?” Roman said.

    For a bare instant, Jack thought about running for it, diving through the window. But he wasn’t big enough, not nearly fast enough. Roman would catch him, pull him back, make him sorry. “I need a drink.” Jack tried, but he couldn’t keep his voice steady. “You want anything?”

    “No. I’m good.”

    Jack’s hands shook as he poured himself rum and a hint of Coke.

    “Tell me where you go when traffic’s bad and you have an iPod in your pocket with millions in codes on it,” Roman said.

    Jack gulped half his drink, cast a fleeting look at Roman, and drained his glass. He wiped his hand across his mouth. “I was being careful,” he said.

    Roman rolled his thick neck, like a prizefighter getting ready for the first round. “You’re making me wait too long.”

    “I ditched the cab.” Jack had shoved a handful of bills through the metal slot in the cabbie’s bulletproof glass, the one that kept passengers from killing him.

    “They paid us half for this job up front,” Roman said. “You have two million in your piggy bank?”

    Jack ran a trembling finger around the rim of his glass. “I had twenty minutes to make the drop,” he said. “Figured I’d catch the local into Grand Central.”

    Roman drew the curtains over the wide window, double locked the door, scooped his gun off a low table by the couch. “If something went wrong, I need to know. We’re trapped on an island. They’ll wait for us on every bridge out of the city.”

    “I heard the train coming when I was halfway down the steps.” Jack had run, paid ten bucks for a token. “The train was pulling in, people were crowding the platform.”

    Roman looked at the door. Heavy footsteps stopped outside. “Where is it?” he said.

    “I was getting on the train, and I checked my pocket, you know,” he glanced at his brother, “to make sure it was still there. But my hands were sweaty, and the train was leaving and,” he made himself say the last three words, “I dropped it.”


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