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.

shy

 

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.

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.

lions

 

“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.

blackboard

 

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.

openbookreading

 

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.

hallway

 

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.”

writewhatyouknow

 

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?

Yes.

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?

fired

 

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.

brobdignagian

 

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.

itsawonderfullife

 

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.

writelikeend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 01:55:05

    I loved this Mike. I couldn’t agree more. That is why I have decided to write my memoir in my blog. It is what I know.

    Reply

  2. Today, You Will Write
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 01:55:35

    Reblogged this on Today, You Will Write and commented:
    Write what you know…Here’s Michael, digging a little deeper into the myth. Thanks Mike!

    Reply

  3. Carrie Rubin
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 02:07:05

    I agree. Although when we first start, writing about what we know might be the best way to begin–helps us gain confidence–we can certainly branch out after that. And with as easy as research is to do now, thanks to the Internet, there’s no reason we can’t extend our stories to the new and unknown.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 24, 2015 @ 17:10:21

      Hi Carrie! That’s a great point–it was definitely harder to do research in the pre-Internet days. Now, all the info is at your fingertips, and the possibilities are endless!

      Reply

      • Carrie Rubin
        Aug 24, 2015 @ 17:12:00

        Google Maps and Google Earth has even made it possible to get our settings accurate without ever visiting the place. Or close to it, anyway.

  4. Trisha Ann
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 02:43:11

    This is such an inspiring and uplifting post! I’ve always been so afraid to post any writing compositions because there are so many in this blogosphere who are miles and miles better. Thank you for this!

    Reply

  5. Lyn
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 02:47:21

    I can relate to that six year old you, Michael. I’m terrified of talking in front of a crowd of people even now at 67. I’m not sure that “write what you know” is valid if you’re a fiction writer. Let’s face it, the very word “fiction” allows you to make things up. I tend to write what I’d like to be able to do a lot of the time. I don’t think I’ve ever grown past the “make believe” stage 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 24, 2015 @ 17:08:59

      Hi, Lyn! I know what you mean about public speaking. I am still not completely over the fear of it.:) And let’s hope neither of us ever grows past the make-believe stage!:)

      Reply

  6. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 17:04:15

    Well said! Bravo. And my inner six-year-old is high-five-ing you right now.

    Reply

  7. Bonnie Marshall
    Aug 23, 2015 @ 18:44:13

    Always insightful, Mike…

    Reply

  8. aliceandembo
    Aug 24, 2015 @ 01:17:42

    Good points! Write what you like and use your human experiences to make your stories touch a chord in your readers. Thanks for this useful share! 🙂

    Reply

  9. BroadBlogs
    Aug 28, 2015 @ 18:51:48

    Sounds expansive to get beyond just writing what you “know.”

    Reply

  10. Shiva Malekopmath
    Aug 30, 2015 @ 07:20:32

    I liked what you know.
    Lots of Love
    Nice week end
    Shiva

    Reply

  11. Shiva Malekopmath
    Sep 07, 2015 @ 08:45:14

    I have nominated you for the Creative Blogger Award.
    Please visit my Blog and Check,
    Fond Regards,
    Shiva

    Reply

  12. imaginenewdesigns12
    Nov 28, 2015 @ 02:08:43

    Thank you for liking “Wishing Well.” I enjoyed your story even though I feel somewhat sad that you had to revisit an awkward experience in your life to tell it. However, I get your point about not having to actually experience something to write about it. I do not have to experience awkwardness in the same exact way that you did in order to know what it is like to feel awkward. Awkwardness is a common human experience, and there is more than one way to experience it.

    When I was younger, I probably would not have strayed away from the “write what you know” advice, but I agree with you now that I have read more books and learned how various authors based some of the characters in their stories on people they knew. I guess an actor goes through a similar experience of trying to take on the role of a famous historical figure that he or she has not met or known personally. The actor sometimes relies only on research and secondhand observation to re-create the personality and mannerisms of the famous historical figure.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Nov 30, 2015 @ 17:43:14

      That’s a great point about actors! I think it’s similar with most creative pursuits. We hone in on experiences we’ve had that are similar (though not necessarily the same) as the characters we’re writing about, and then we pour as much of our own feelings into it. Thanks so much for sharing!

      Reply

      • imaginenewdesigns12
        Dec 02, 2015 @ 08:42:26

        Thank you, and you are welcome. 🙂 Yes, I think you are right about most creative pursuits requiring us to explore ideas and experiences outside of ourselves (and sometimes out of our comfort zone). Our efforts may not always have a successful outcome, but we learn from trying. 🙂

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