Write What You … No

Write What You … No

Express even a simple, teeny, tiny scrap of infinitesimal interest in writing, and here is one piece of cheerful advice you’re bound to hear:

Write what you know!

If someone were to pen a book titled How to Become a Writer in Ten Hundred Thousand Easy Steps, this would be Step One. Or Step Zero.

But is it really good advice?

Personally, it’s always inspired in me the sort of teeth-gnashing irritation normally reserved for really long grocery lines, or people who tell you they liked your haircut better before. Because … come on, dude. We all know a lot of things.

We know approximately 40,000 words.

That’s so many words! If we’re supposed to write what we know, doesn’t that mean we can basically write anything?

Anything at all?

Just when you start to believe it, the writing headmistresses jump in with their yardsticks and their little buns and slap away those dreams.

No! they admonish. You will specialize! You will pick A Thing You Are Good At, and you will write about That One Thing! Only!

The root message of so many pieces of writing advice is that no one can take seriously a writer who opines about food and travel and babies and art and fear and love and books and the Wonderful Thing About Tiggers, all at once.

… what? Oh, yes. I adore Tigger, thankyoufornoticing.

And terrariums. They’re so in right now.

Also cactuses. Who doesn’t love cactuses? Can I write about them? I have, like, thirteen in my house.

Do I know cactuses, though? Can anyone truly know a cactus?

The headmistresses merely shake their heads and give you the side-eye. Say goodbye to cactuses! those eyes are saying. Don’t be a Jill of all trades!

Somehow, no matter how hard you try, you just … can’t … avoid … the eyes.

It’s sad because I like so many things. I don’t want to choose. No one makes us choose among other amazing things. I’ve never been ordered to specialize in cupcake preferences. I’m allowed to like all cupcakes!

Not that it matters. Because, chocolate.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume for a moment that we agree with the advice to “write what you know.”

Usually, the implication is that you have a very interesting background. Perhaps somewhere in your recent or nearly forgotten past, for instance, you have a Source of Deep Pain.

Or a Transformational Experience.

Or sometimes, Just a Really Unique Story to Tell. (Possibilities include: growing up in a reindeer-herding camp or a gingerbread house; having a prima ballerina for a dad; playing chess with Obama.)

But what if you don’t have a good story to tell, just sitting in your back pocket? Aren’t we doing writers a disservice making them believe that something has to be OMG so amazing before they can put finger to keys? Some of the best stories are just human. They are not Great or Untold. They just … are.

Is it no longer enough to ponder what it means to be calm? To talk about the scent of pines? To paint word pictures of magical villages?

I want to read these stories. I’ve always wanted to read these stories, because it is neither calm nor pine-scented in my head, and frankly, I just need more magical villages in my life. I think everyone does.

Headmistress: But have you ever been to a magical village? No? Okay, then forget it.

*sobs about Hogwarts for millionth time*

If this were another area of our lives, we would be offended by this kind of thinking. “It’s him or me!” is a classic you’d-have-to-be-a-jerk-to-say-it line, but it gets said all the time in career.

And I get it. Bounce around too much, and you’ll just end up lost and unhappy. But being a good employee and being a good writer are very, very different.

To be a good employee, you have to follow through on the expectations of others. Even as a freelance writer, I usually don’t have a choice of what I write about for work.

Pixel density. ORAC scores. Growth habits of giant cockroaches.

Yes. Growth habits of giant cockroaches. Be still my heart. (And now, if someone could go ahead and restart it for me … thanks.)

But what about when I don’t get to choose when it’s just me and my brain and my MacBook? What then?

I’m one person composed of a million thoughts and experiences.

I write about a million things for work. I’m a writer and a wife and a mom and an artist and a dog owner and a sun lover. Yet there’s nothing special about being or knowing any of this, is there?

It begs the question of whether I really know anything original at all.

I’ve … read a lot of novels?

I travel?

Meh. Maybe these make me special enough to write an article. A diary entry, okay. A book?

Oooh, careful! Some people will actually go so far as to point at you beadily and say: Don’t write a book. You probably don’t have one in you.

Yes, an actual author actually opined this in the actual New York Times. The one in New York. You’ve probably heard of it.

Keep it inside you, where it belongs, this author said.

Your knowledge is not worthy, he might as well have said. Your history is bankrupt.

I think that’s total crap. Why shouldn’t everyone write a book, if they like?

I mean, I’m a human being with free will, and I can choose not to read as many books as I want. Millions, even! There are so many books not to read! In this day of Kindle Publishing, you don’t even get to use the tree card. So why shouldn’t everyone tell their story?

Even if they’re telling it badly.

I think the much greater danger is obstructing the artists, the poets, the longing adults, the earnest children, the many creative types in our world. Civilization has never needed the power of words so much as it does now.

An open letter to writers, successful or just beginning:

We don’t have to take this advice any longer.

So I don’t. I like lots of things. I write about lots of things. I can honestly say I don’t know what I’m talking about half the time.

And I think I like that about me. I like that I don’t know … yet. I like that sometimes writing helps me know what I didn’t know before I sat down.

I like that every story ever written probably suffered a beady headmistress telling its author they weren’t good enough before that author kicked the headmistress in the shins and kept at it … and now look at them. They’re famous!

So forget about it. Let the fear go.

You have a story, even if you haven’t found it yet. Write long enough, and you will. Put enough love into it, and someone will want to listen.

Because you’re human, and that makes you worthy to write about anything at all.

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