To write what you know is one of the biggest nuggets of writing advice that comes from authors. It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established. Writing what you know allows the writer to draw upon personal events where details can appear more naturally and make the writing feel more authentic. This advice applies to so much more than just events. We feel a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from euphoric to gut wrenching as we live through these events. Writers know emotions and must write those emotions. I believe this is why we get hooked with a story we feel has nothing to do with our lives. It isn’t the mob lifestyle or unspeakable events from Nazi Germany during WWII that pulls readers into a story. We identify with characters who feel what we feel.
As a teacher teaching second graders, this often meant I read lots of informative pieces on playing with pets, narratives of a summer trip where a flight was as exciting as the destination, and realistic fiction stories about camping, sports, or school. Most kids have fairly similar experiences coming from the same geographic area and being so young. The joy of writing, experiencing success, and becoming more independent writers were always wide-ranging goals in any piece. I wanted kids to write what they knew. Writing about what they didn’t know was a blank page.
It’s the same with me.
As a reader, I look to sources who are experts. Mitch Albom. Sue Monk Kidd. Brené Brown. I go back to favorite authors as well as whomever I’m reading at the moment to reread passages and examine what made them effective. I read like a writer. I love words and storytelling. Even when reading fiction, I understand authors research their topics to make stories credible and realistic. Many factors make writing come alive.
I ask myself, as a writer, what do I know?
Unfortunately, I know too much.
My mother had uterine cancer that was successfully removed through surgery. It gave me an early example that disease would always be caught early and without much inconvenience. I recall a couple of years later telling friends she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was going to be harder but that she’d be okay. It was harder. Mom had a partial mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I became an expert on her health and breast cancer knowledge. Information was power and I wanted to understand all of it. All was good for years. Golden years.
And then it wasn’t. She wasn’t.
Looking back, I’m not sure if she cared for all my pearls of wisdom that I’d learned. I likely was annoying. It’s very different when the shoe is on the other foot and you have been diagnosed rather than a family member. I want my information but have a bit of an inner attitude when someone who isn’t an authority drops false information at my feet.
My metastatic breast cancer diagnosis came about a month or two later on the heels of hers.
There is a lot I could write about from my experiences with cancer with my mom and from my own. I haven’t mined memories of it with my mom because of the pain. I don’t feel as much pain with my own. I’ve found it to be cathartic and a home to give voice to the pain and whatever other truths need speaking.
Others write from a very factual perspective of their experience. Expert background experience support their writing. They write from legal, medical, patient experience, and personal experience perspectives. Others share raw emotions and reactions to what’s happening in their lives through poems and deeply personal reflections. I tend to write about cancer from the lens of what happens to me and my thoughts about it. Factual information gets sprinkled here and there as it impacts my chosen subject or theme. We’re all invited to sit a while with these perspectives and stories of shared experiences.
Write what you know. I know cancer.
Emotions were mentioned at the top of the piece. We all experience universal feelings. Fear. Despair. Loneliness. Humor. Love. Hope. Spirit. A small event of forgetting music at a piano recital can pack some huge emotions of not feeling supported, being humiliated, and hearing your parents lie to you about your achievement. It’s still a tough memory for me. This story can be more powerful than a story that retells a death in the family that is void of emotions. Emotions and feelings spill over in writing because the goal is for someone else to understand and connect with what was written. When I think of a common quality that’s at the core of favorite books, or dare I say even things I write, is the desire to be understood. We crave that as writers and readers.
Feelings are our emotional truths.
Stories of good times on Grandma’s farm help me preserve memories that I want to remember. Her home is a strong example of how emotions create the writing. I took a photo of her farm from out in the field one winter. My grandma, dad, and mom were all warm inside visiting after our Sunday meal. I wrote about how the people I loved were in the photo even though I couldn’t see them as part of an assignment in college. Later, I wrote a poem about it. Years later, this house is in disarray. Raccoons have taken over and hauntingly walk on keys of the damaged piano in the night. A cousin’s son and his wife moved onto the property into the more modern home across the drive when they married. They see the old house as dilapidated and scary (I do too) but more of my emotions are grounded in Sunday visits, time with Grandma, and playing with the farm cats. I sent my cousin’s son a copy of the poem so he could see the abandoned house as a home for a few brief moments.
Write what you know. I know my feelings.
Small experiences can have big impacts. I remember winning a cake at a cake walk when I was about six and it was the first thing I ever won. It was a carrot cake with nuts. I was allergic and unable to eat it, but I had won something and felt special. Memories playing at the playground across the street fill many childhood memories. Camping in Girl Scouts. Family vacations. Being bullied. Never knowing if you really fit in. I remember holding my dad’s hand in the ICU and watching it shake trying to find mine after one of his heart surgeries. I have entertaining experiences throwing dinner parties, both fun and disastrous. News of a good scan. Not so good news. There are arguments and celebrations. Little events make a life. Although short, this brief list weaves together experiences with emotions. Most are waiting to be written.
Hope isn’t an experience as much as it is a belief. This belief has been a driving force in some of my experiences and many of my thoughts. Links are provided if you’d like to go back and read past posts. Hope is what I know.
Write what you know. I know my experiences.
I know a few things about teaching after twenty-three years in the classroom. Best practices in curriculum and child development have come and gone. Co-workers and students have provided so many stories that you can’t make up. Classic one liners that still make me laugh. One year each child reminded me of a different breed of dog. I loved that class. One year there was a child who had some obvious unidentified emotional issues but who could work quite successfully under his desk. I loved that child as challenging as he was. Another year there was another child who inched her way closer and closer to the door and thought she was hiding. She was a character. I remember mistakes I’ve made like working with glitter as part of projects. I could write about lockdown drills. There is endless material. I can remember where I stood when I learned my dad had died. I know where I was when I got the call that my mom had taken a turn and the end was near. I can bring up the moment where a friend told me she was pregnant. The day I shared with my students I had cancer and couldn’t be with them is still fresh. So many nonteaching things happen within the walls of a school. The things we’d hear if those walls could talk.
I was happy teaching. At times I was frustrated. I felt successful, secure, and safe. Teaching was home.
Write what you know. I know teaching.
I’m not the only one who knows these things.
What do you know?