Nathan Englander

"Write what you know" - the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever.

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Author Nathan Englander explains that the age-old writing advice "write what you know" isn't about events, it's about universal emotions like love, loss, and longing.

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander’s short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and numerous other publications and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Englander is the author of the forthcoming collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (on-sale by Knopf 2/7), as well as the internationally bestselling story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases.

Translated into more than a dozen languages, Englander was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Malamud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He’s been a fellow at the Dorothy & Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and at The American Academy of Berlin.

This year, along with the publication of his new collection, Englander's play The Twenty-Seventh Man will premiere at The Public Theater, and his translation New American Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer) will be published by Little Brown. He also co-translated Etgar Keret's Suddenly A Knock at the Door forthcoming in March from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

He lives in Brooklyn, New York and Madison, Wisconsin.


Nathan Englander: I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is, is "write what you know."  And I think it’s, honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it is the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is.  It’s so simple and so obvious and it used to terrify me, this idea of "write what you know."  I was dreaming . . . I was in suburbia, you know, in my house, dreaming of being a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with " write what you know?"  

What I know from childhood is, I was on the couch watching TV, so I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you.  I should write a book called What’s Happening, and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie's on at Five O’Clock.  You know what I’m saying?  That was my childhood experience, and this didn’t feel to me when I thought of the books that I love and the kind of stuff that I wanted to write, it felt like, I am going to be very limited by “write what I know.”   

You know, this idea, like, my family history . . . we don’t . . . you know, I’m very American.  I don’t know my family history.  That’s something I address in the new book.  I wrote a story about that very idea.  But I don’t know my family history and, to me, as a kid out in suburbia, that wasn’t the most thrilling life.  You know, the central part of growing up for those of us who were, like, disenfranchised suburban kids was wanting to leave that town or that world or that house--you know, I love you, mom, but nonetheless.  

So for me, when I thought about “write what you know,” when I really thought about it, I understood, like, what it is, is empathic advice.  It’s advice about feeling.  

You know, most of the books that we truly love don’t exist because these things did not happen to the people that were writing them.  But why do we love those books?  Why do they change us?  Why do they touch our hearts?  Why do they hold so much meaning?  Because, they are truer than truth, ‘cause there is a great knowing within them.  And I think what’s behind “write what you know” is emotion.  Like, have you known happiness?  Have you ever been truly sad?  Have you ever longed for something?  And that’s, the point is: if you’ve longed for an Atari 2600, as I did when I was 12, you know, like, all I wanted was that game console.  You know what I’m saying?  If you have felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for a lost love or for liberation of your country or to, you know, reach Mars.  You know, that’s the idea.  If you’ve known longing, then you can write longing.  

And that’s . . . you know, that is the knowing behind write what you know.  


Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd