Writing What You Know (Or, Reading in Front of the Sixth-Graders)

“I think you’re ready, Michael,” she said.  “You’re reading very well, and I want the big kids to hear it.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled.  Of all the students in the class, I was the one Mrs. Northrup had chosen for the honor.  But on the other hand, I was scared silly.  I was six years old that fall, a first-grader who may have been reading well but who was also the shyest student in the class.  Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Northrup realized this, and she had decided the task assigned would do me good.



Of course, being six, I didn’t share her professional and experienced perspective.  She’d been a teacher for decades.  I just knew that standing up in front of a classroom full of older kids and reading aloud to them seemed about as beneficial for my development as walking straight into the heart of an active volcano.



“Don’t worry,” she assured me.  “You’ll do just fine.”

When the time came, book in hand, I trudged through the old hallways of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, up the flight of stairs to the floor where the “big kids” had their classes, and, moving slower and slower with every step, arrived outside the assigned door.  I wished Mrs. Northrup had accompanied me.  She could have introduced me to the class, or done or said something to make it easier.  But she had sent me up by myself.

I considered turning around and leaving, but realized Mrs. Northrup would get word of such a tactic before day’s end.  No.  I was stuck.

I knocked on the half-opened door, my heart beating faster, faster.  There were sixth-graders in there!  They seemed light-years ahead of me, and more intimidating than a pride of lions.  The teacher–whose name I have long since forgotten–smiled at me and motioned for me to come in.



“You must be Michael,” she said. “Mrs. Northrup told me to expect you, and I was just telling the class that one of the top first-grade students would be coming up to read.”  Great, I thought.  More pressure.  “Come along in!” she beamed.

I stood in place a moment longer, my mind still clinging, stubbornly, to potential escape routes.  But when the teacher motioned for me to come in again, her smile widening, I did the only thing I could think of.

I turned my back to the class, took a deep breath, and sidled through the door.  I heard someone in the class chuckle, but I didn’t turn around, wouldn’t turn around.  In front of me, the blackboard still contained the teacher’s notes, in crisp, perfect chalk-script, from whatever lesson the class had been learning earlier that day.



No one said a word.  I looked at nothing but the chalkboard–I didn’t dare glance back at the class, nor did I look at the teacher.  I had a job to do, a task to complete, and I didn’t want to be in any way distracted.

I opened the book to the assigned spot, and began to read.  The passage ran one entire page.  I wasn’t sure the class could hear me with my back turned to them, but I didn’t stress over it.  I just told myself to read the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph, get through it, and then exit the room.



As soon as I read the last word, I began to side-walk toward the door.  I moved as quickly as I could, and I didn’t turn around and walk face-forward again until I was in the hallway, heading toward the stairs, which would take me away from the sixth-graders and their classrooms and their lessons.



Not once, during the entire experience, did I turn to face the class.


It’s something every writer has heard, often drilled into them with the force and repetition of an iron-clad commandment:  “Write what you know.”



We hear this so many times, in so many different places, and from so many reputable sources, it seems nearly impossible to argue.  After all, who can argue against the truth?  Besides, the advice seems to hold a lot of weight.  When we write about experiences, situations, jobs, relationships we have experienced, don’t our words contain more validity?  Don’t they resonate more, sing louder and more confidently?


And no.

Let’s take a step back.  What, exactly, does “write what you know” refer to?  Is it to be taken rigidly, literally, basically saying that if I have never been fired from a job, to use a simple for-instance, that I cannot then write about a character in a story who is fired from their job?



Or is it more broad?  Maybe, though I haven’t ever been fired, I still can imagine what such an experience might feel like.  Perhaps I have been dropped from a sports team, turned down at an interview, caught doing something wrong at home that resulted in less-than-ideal consequences.  The feelings I may have experienced during those situations may not be identical, one-for-one matches to getting fired, but do they really need to be?

Or take my first-grade experience related above.  It’s a silly old story on the surface. (And that evening, after getting word of what happened, Mrs. Northrup called my mother on the phone to tell her all about it.  They both had a good laugh over it, and eventually I did, too.)  But the experience also contains a lot of very real, raw emotions:  the fear of public speaking; feeling awkward and shy; the fear of performing badly under pressure; the possibility of being laughed at, ridiculed, or rejected; the burden of carrying the expectations of my teacher to represent her class well; the isolating journey up to an unknown, Brobdingnagian portion of the school, inhabited by “big kids”; and so on.



In other words, it is rich with emotional experience, feelings, internal memories that can be “borrowed,” so to speak, when writing about situations that, at first glance, seem radically different and unrelated, but, in actuality, when you probe deeper and drill down to the feeling level, are really quite similar.  After all, what do we remember from our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad ones?  The circumstances, obviously, but even more so, the feelings, the emotions, the pain or joy, the sadness or elation that resulted.

Writing what you know can be interpreted as only writing about things that are a one-for-one match with your own personal experience.  That is a valid interpretation.  But I would argue it is an unnecessarily constricting one.  A fiction writer uses his or her imagination to create worlds, events, characters that, hopefully, allow readers to enter into the story, become engaged in far-off places, other time periods, or even just the next town over.  If we as authors are reluctant to write things beyond the purview of our own literal experience, then we probably should not write fiction at all.  With such strict parameters in place, creating a straitjacket on our literary endeavors, speculative fiction would never exist.  There could be no time machines or werewolves, vampires or interdimensional voids that carry four seventh-graders to a faraway and alien world.  There could be no Yellow Brick Roads or dreams and powers that lift us high up, “over the rainbow.”  There could be no Morlocks or Superman or preternatural do-overs in Frank Capra Christmas classics.



Anytime I feel disqualified from writing a certain scene or character because I “haven’t ever done that before” or “been there before,” I just take a moment and think back to that scared, shy, and overwhelmed first-grader.  If I just close my eyes and listen, really listen, I discover he has so much to share.



Thanks so much for reading!


Nothing in the Dark

It can be anything, really . . .

A sense of dread at the thought of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and delivering a speech.



A heavy, sickly feeling that grabs on tight and doesn’t let go whenever you think of that annual performance review or that interview for a new job.



A sense of doubt so severe, it causes you to sweat and second-guess and procrastinate when confronted with a certain nausea-inducing task.



The list can go on and on, scrolling through the virtual pages of our minds, memories, and backstories.

For Mitchell Brant, it’s a sensation of coming up short, a belief that he doesn’t quite measure up as is, inspiring him to lie and tell tall tales about himself.  For Ryan Swinton, it’s the possibility that someone won’t laugh at one of his jokes, or that he might inconvenience or upset a friend.  For Joe Marma, it’s that he will be judged as lacking, second-rate, always finishing behind his older brother in everything he does.  And for Marc Kuslanski, it’s the frustration of uncertainty, the specter of problems and puzzles he cannot solve, of mysteries he cannot fathom.

Rejection.  Disappointment.  Failure.  Misunderstanding.  Heartache.  Loss.

We are all afraid of something.  We all must wrestle with our own personal ghosts and ghouls, worries and fears.



For Wanda Dunn, an old woman we meet in a third-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Nothing in the Dark,” the albatross that weighs her down is made clear from the start.



Wanda Dunn is terrified of death.

The story opens with Wanda holed up in her broken-down tenement, snow falling outside her windows.  She spies someone on the step just beyond her door–a young man in uniform.  She cowers in a corner, fearful of being seen.  And then a whistle blows, a gunshot rings out, and the man falls.



Reluctantly, Wanda opens her door, just enough to peek outside.  The man (played by a twentysomething Robert Redford) is lying in the snow.



He pleads to her, says he’s a police officer and that he’s been shot and needs help.



“You’re lying,” the old woman says.  “Why can’t you leave me alone?  I know who you are.  I know what you are.”

It is here that Rod Serling provides the opening narration of the episode.  In the voice-over, he tells us that Wanda Dunn thinks the man outside is, in actuality, Mr. Death in disguise.

But the police officer continues his appeal.  “Unless you help me,” he says, “I’m going to die.  I don’t think I can move.”  He tells her his name is Harold Beldon and asks her to call a hospital.

She tells him she has no telephone, and cannot call anyone.

When he asks if he can come inside, out of the cold, she balks.  “I’d have to unlock the door,” she says.  “I can’t do that.  I don’t want to die.  I know who you are.”



He grimaces, clearly in pain, and tells her as much.

Eventually, and grudgingly, she opens the door and lets Officer Harold Beldon into her home . . .

Later, we see her tending to him, as he lies in a bed.  She brews him some tea, not as afraid of him now, apparently comforted by the belief that he is who he says he is–just a police officer injured in the line of duty, and not the angel of death come to snatch her away.

As they talk, we learn that Wanda Dunn lives alone.  There are no neighbors.  They’ve all moved away.  And she can’t open the door, seek out a telephone to call a doctor, even if there still were a neighbor.

“I can’t let him in,” she says.

“Mr. Death . . .” Officer Harold Beldon replies, catching on.

“I know he’s out there,” Wanda says.  “He’s trying to get in.  He comes to the door and knocks.  He begs me to let him in.  Last week he said he came from the gas company.  Oh, he’s clever.  After that, he claimed to be a contractor hired by the city.”  He’d told her the building had been condemned and she had to leave.  But “I kept the door locked, and he went away.”

The officer objects, pointing out that people all over the world die every day.  How can one man, a single Mr. Death, be in all those places at once?



She says she doesn’t know, but she has seen him before.  Every time someone she knew died, he was there.  She admits, others don’t seem to see him, but she thinks she does because she’s old, and because her “time is coming.”

“I could see clearer than younger people could,” she says.  And yet–his face is always different.  She can never be sure it’s him at first glance, and that’s why she hides, shuts herself in, not allowing herself to venture outside.

“How can you live like this?” Officer Beldon asks.

To which she responds, “But if I don’t live like this, I won’t live at all.  If I let down, even for a moment, he’ll get in.”

Suddenly there’s a knock.  She doesn’t want to answer, but the officer urges her to.  She opens the door a crack.  A burly workman is there.



“I’m sorry, lady,” he says, “but I’ve got my orders.  I can’t fool around any longer.”

The man forces his way in, and Wanda Dunn is certain it’s Mr. Death.



The man assures her he’s just a worker arriving to warn her that she needs to move out immediately.  His crew is set to begin demolishing the tenement in one hour’s time.

“I’m surprised anyone still lives here,” he says.  Hasn’t she read the notices, opened her mail?  It’s an old building, he explains, dangerous.  It’s got to come down.

“That’s life, lady,” he goes on.  “People get the idea I’m some sort of destroyer . . . I just clear the ground so other people can build . . . It’s just the way things are . . . Old animals die, and young ones take their places.  Even people step aside when it’s time.”

“I won’t,” she says, and implores Officer Beldon to help, explain to the man that she can’t leave.  But the man asks who she’s talking to.  There isn’t anyone else in the room but the two of them.

Pressed for time, ready to coordinate the demolition, the workman leaves, again issuing a warning that she needs to leave the building immediately.

But Wanda Dunn is no longer concerned about the workman or the tenement.

“He didn’t see you,” she says to the officer when they are once again alone.  Officer Beldon tells her to look in the mirror.  When she does, she can only see herself.  The police officer has no reflection.

Finally realizing what has happened, Wanda exclaims, “You tricked me!  It was you all the time!  But why?  You could’ve taken me anytime.  You were nice.  You made me trust you.”



He gets out of bed, asks, “Am I really so bad?”  And tells her she’s not afraid of him, of death, but of the unknown.  “Don’t be afraid,” he says.  “The running’s over.  It’s time to rest.”



He offers her his hand.

“I don’t want to die,” she says.

But he encourages her, softly, gently, and they touch.

“You see?” Mr. Death says with a smile.  “No shock.  No engulfment.  No tearing asunder.  What you feared would come like an explosion . . . is like a whisper.  What you thought was the end . . . is the beginning.”

“When will it happen?” she wants to know.  “When will we go?”

But they already have.  He tells her to look at the bed.  She sees herself lying there, lifeless.

Understanding at last, fearing no longer, she smiles, and, arm in arm, they walk out the door.



In the closing narration, Rod Serling sums it up like this:

“There was an old woman who lived in a room and, like all of us, was frightened of the dark, but who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life, that there was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on.”



Thanks so much for reading!


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