Don’t Know What to Write? Write What You Know!

I first started out at Warner Bros. as a creative executive in 2009. Being out of college, I was definitely still wet behind the ears, but had worked enough internships to give me a jump on the job. People assume that I went to film school, but I actually studied History at UCLA — which is really just story telling — but it’s a subject I loved and quite frankly became very handy. You realize that in this business no one really cares what kind of degree you have, so it starts everyone out on an equal playing field. I was also that kid that was sneaking away to go take Robert Mckee Story Structure seminar or reading screenwriting books. What led me to the studio was wanting to learn the actual business of making studio films. To learn how the process of storytelling could be affected by the business of movie making. The result is what brought me into the world of literary representation to help guide creatives through the chaotic balance that is storytelling and commerce. I’ve come to Circle of Confusion from 3 Arts Entertainment, which has expanded my business from not only representing writers and directors, but to intellectual libraries as well.

One thing I always hear in my professional life is to “write what you know.”

It’s something I’m sure plenty of writers must have heard in either writing classes or self help books, but what does that really mean ‘write what you know’? I know a lot about coffee mugs or pogs (love those people who remember pogs), but that doesn’t really mean I’d write a whole story about that. So I sit here wondering what I should discuss with everyone at Stage32 to really help with writing and just being in this business in general. Therefore I’ll tell you what I think it means to write what you know.

Something artists always ask is what reps look for when wanting to sign someone. The answer is really quite simple, a perspective of the world. Storytelling is about life experiences and connecting with them, whether it is a love story, heartbreak, grief, victory, etc.… the purpose is to tell the specific point of view YOU want to share. A lot of the things that are written by aspiring writers are emulated stories that they are a fan of, whether it be their favorite TV show or some of their favorite Spielberg films. That is simply re-telling. The point of storytelling is for it to be YOUR story. What do you connect with on a personal basis? For example, I really love the Lion King (but let’s be real…who doesn’t?). Sure it’s a bunch of talking animals AND a cartoon, but it’s also about being afraid of an overcoming responsibility being handed to you. Who doesn’t feel scared about going to college or raising their family? Responsibility can be scary enough for people to want to run away from it, but in the end you have to be a lion! As you can probably tell this is what motivated me to get into the story telling business. I wanted to affect people by sharing life experiences. People love to know that they are not alone. The only way your story will be true and meaningful is if it comes from the heart, from pain/love that you know in great detail.

When I used to be a WB executive, the first thing that a big writer or director would open with would be a personal story of how they relate to this project. This was always the case, even if it was something such as Superman. All that Clark Kent wants is to be accepted, and quite frankly who doesn’t. We want to be accepted by our family, friends, significant other… it’s a universal truth and Superman isn’t any different. It was then that I finally understood this idea of write what you know. Not everyone is going to connect to the sci-fi or comic book attributes of your story, but what they will connect with is the heart of what it’s trying to say.

Now, asking yourself what is it you really know a lot about can be a daunting and perhaps scary thing. More often than not, the scarier it is to write the more likely it’s honest. THAT is what people are going to react to. When writers come in and try to pitch a big idea and there are terms like “phasers” or “photons” or “intergalactic war” being thrown around, that’s not what moves someone to thinking it is a great story. They connect with real emotional description. Let’s take a look at the image below:

I always love these motivational posters that people have as their desktop background or maybe even hanging on their walls. Why do things like this cue an emotional response with people? We’ve all had plans or dreams be met with negativity or discouragement. I’m sure that’s probably the case with some who mention they want to be big Hollywood screenwriters or novelists. It starts to make you think that maybe you’re just not being realistic and this is just TOO ambitious of a project, but this ONE image reminds you that the same story was told when two brothers who made bicycles had this ridiculous idea that they could make someone fly. Their story is a life experience and a feeling we can all relate to, but it provides you a sense of hope and encouragement because we all know how this story ended up. It doesn’t make us feel so ridiculous or alone anymore knowing that someone else out there had the same thing happen.

Now as I said before, it can sometimes be a daunting task to get this honest with yourself, but that’s what makes your story sell and be engaging. It makes it authentic, and to do it any other way is what people describe as cheesy or shallow. I’m sure there have been times that you have sat in a movie theatre or flipped through channels where you started to roll your eyes because you just didn’t feel anything. Well now hopefully you know why.

It took me a while to understand what it means to write what you know. I’ve come to learn that it means to share your unique life perspective whether you’re an optimist or a realist. There are people out there yearning to connect and escape who probably have felt the same way you have. Not only can you reach that person, but you can entertain them as well. When you’re sitting in front of that blank computer screen wondering what to write, just as I was writing this piece, remember…write what you know.

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Post written by Jairo Alvarado, literary manager at Circle of Confusion. Jairo has been responsible for launching the careers of many writers and directors and was recently responsible for the bidding war which led to the sale of Sundays to Warner Brothers. This article first appeared on the Stage 32 Blog.

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