“Write what you know” – the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever.

“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says author Nathan Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? As a kid, did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it?

When he played Travis Bickle, the homicidal cabbie in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, then-27-year-old Robert DeNiro had never killed a pimp. He had never fought in Vietnam or attempted to assassinate a senator. How, then, could he be so incredibly convincing as a paranoid maniac?


Deniro was trained in the “method” – a psychologically realistic school of acting brought to New York in the 1930s by Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and other protegées of the great Russian director Stanislavsky. While method acting has inspired its share of parody, the core of the method is about analogy. If you’ve got to play a killer, you try to resurrect the most homicidal feeling you’ve ever had and bring that sense of all-consuming rage to the part. It doesn’t take much – a high school memory of being grounded on prom night, for example, could suffice. 

What's the Big Idea? 

For Nathan Englander, it’s exactly the same with writing. The critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank says that “write what you know” is one of the best and most misunderstood pieces of advice, ever. It paralyzes aspiring authors into thinking that authenticity in fiction means thinly veiled autobiography. If you’re a drunken, brawling adventurer, like Hemingway, no problem. But Englander, who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community of West Hempstead, New York, says he spent a lot of his childhood watching TV, playing videogames, and dreaming about being a writer. Was he required to write about the Atari 2600?  

“Write what you know” isn’t about events, says Englander. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn't matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it. 

Nathan Englander on writing "what you know.":

We are honored to have Nathan Englander judging the Big Think, Short Fiction Contest – top three winning entries to be announced and published on Big Think next Friday, 3//9.

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Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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