Write What You KnowPosted: May 23, 2016
As an emerging writer, I hear that advice a lot. I think we all do. But what does it really mean? Before a writer can write about a subject or topic, she must experience it. Which is not to say that it isn’t possible to research a subject and then write about it as if you’re an expert, or at least know what you’re talking about, but it is saying that when you experience something, you must own the emotional aspects associated with it, and that will come through in your writing.
Now you know why I am not a travel writer. I wish I were, but I don’t travel often. Travel writers get paid big bucks. No, I’m a prime example of a starving artist. I work menial labor jobs to scratch out a living, and seek out cheap entertainment. But I do write what I know.
When I started out freelancing, I knew one thing. I loved to write, and I wanted to find a way to make a living at it. When I filled out the application for Examiner.com, I had to pick a category to write on. I chose writing, and as the Southern Colorado Literature Examiner, I covered writing events in southern Colorado and wrote author profiles and book reviews for Colorado authors. I served in this capacity for six years, not because I was getting rich off it, but because I loved what I was doing. I met many Colorado authors, most of whom I’m still in contact with, I got free ARC copies of books for review and I occasionally was able to attend some great writing events, such as the 2013 Pike’s Peak Writers’ Conference, 2012 Writing the Rockies Conference and Performance Poetry Readings, with wonderful poets such as word woman, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. The money was never an issue for me, (I maybe made a whole $20 during the whole six years I wrote for Examiner), but the perks were great. It may have actually played a role in my acceptance to Western State Colorado University as a graduate student in their low-residency Creative Writing program, since I had interviewed and written a three part profile on the then director of their poetry concentration, David J. Rothman. But I digress.
When I applied to write for Demand Media writing How-to articles, they didn’t have a lot of call for articles to do with writing, so I had to think. What else did I know? I started out with simple things like How to Put a Chain Back on a Huffy 10-speed Bicycle. I’ve always been an avid gardener, since I helped my grandfather plant petunias when I was a little girl, so I ended up writing a lot of gardening How-tos, like How to Grow Vegetables in a Bathtub. The topics I wasn’t as familiar with required a minimal amount of research, like The Best Potting Soils for a Vegetable Garden and I had references at hand to look up anything I needed. At $8 per article, the research had to be minimal. If I spent too much time researching, the time spent wouldn’t prove to be profitable.
As I mentioned, I don’t do a lot of traveling, and my entertainment is limited by my pocketbook, but I’ve learned to write about the things I do know. You won’t catch me writing about the Emmies, or the Oscars, or $100 a ticket charity fundraisers, because I’ll never be at one of those events and I know very little about them. What you will see me writing about are weird, off the wall things like, How Writing is Like Building a Storage Shed, or Getting in Shape for Writing, which combines my own experience, with building or exercise, with my knowledge of writing.
Of course, that doesn’t work with everything. My experiences on this day involved digging a ditch. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem as creative building a shed. But I could always write a fictional story in which the characters dig a ditch. You see, “write what you know” applies to fiction, too. My whole children’s series, My Backyard Friends, feature characters based on the birds and wildlife that frequently visit my mountain home. I wrote a short story one time that developed from a visit to Lake DeWeese, not far from my home. It was about a woman who walks naked into a waterfall and disappears. The funny thing about that story, titled, The Woman in the Water, was that my narrator turned out to be male, giving it a very interesting twist. But it was still based on the experience I had, hiking up to the top of the dam, and then sitting, gazing down into the waterfall.
It really is important to write what you know, for although some can “fake it” convincingly with just research, in most cases, the readers know. When the words on the page don’t feel genuine, like they’ve come from deep within the author, readers can’t quite buy in to what they’re being told, whether it is something being explained to them in an article, or a fictional story they’re being asked to believe. And if readers can’t buy in to the story, or feel the authority in the author’s voice, they are often left feeling unsatisfied, with the promise of the premise unfulfilled.
In short, what is really meant when someone says “write what you know”, is that you should draw from your own experiences, whether they be many or few, and inject a little bit of yourself with words that come from deep within into your writing. Let the readers feel the same emotions you feel when you write about your topic, or create your story. Write honestly, and the readers will feel that, too.
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