Write What You Know

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 It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established.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?

Cancer

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.

Feelings

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.

Experiences

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.

Hope, Belief, and a Monthly Planner

Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Write what you know. I know my experiences.

Teaching

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?

RAIN and Self-Compassion

Life is crazy these days.

Crazy.

That is the word I keep coming back to over the course of the last month, weeks, and days. It’s even applicable to hours and minutes. It is difficult to escape because our lives have transformed to the confines of our own homes. The top story on local and national news now is the entire broadcast. Attempts to escape real life and watch a show on TV is interrupted with advertisements about how life has changed. I fill my time fairly successfully. The day still can feel long when I’m isolating alone. It’s almost too much.

I am tired of feeling stressed, overwhelmed, worn out, or numb by life these days.

Tara Brach is a well-known psychologist and author. Her work blends together Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices. She is huge in the world of meditation and mindfulness. One of her main tools is rooted in the acronym RAIN and is a way to connect with self-compassion when experiencing emotional difficulty.

These crazy times have their share of emotional difficulty. My plan today is to share more about RAIN and how it works.

R – Recognize what is happening.

A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.

I  – Investigate with interest and care.

N – Nurture with self-compassion.

R – Recognize what is happening.

What are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affecting me right now?

Me: I am PISSED OFF about all my plans falling apart. A Triple F would fit nicely here. Travel, birthday, entertainment, and fundraising plans have been canceled. My birthday isn’t canceled but I’m starting from scratch. Whatever alternate plans I make may also get scrapped in the end. Workouts and book clubs are all experienced remotely. It’s depressing.

I feel like I’m not living and there was a successful effort to live each day fully before life shifted to being safer at home. I feel like a blob. I ate quite nutritiously for the first few weeks and now I’m seeing behaviors where I’m eating out of boredom or stress. I’m grabbing sugar over healthy nutrients. I moved around tons for the first few weeks and now that behavior has taken a bad turn as well. I feel sickish a lot of the time due to these behaviors.

A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.

Nothing is being fixed or avoided. Emotions and sensations are allowed to just be. Fear shows up here often.

Me: Yep, I’ve had the fear, I’ve had the tears. Mostly anger. A lot of disappointment. There’s worry and anxiety. Allowing is a good term for this part of the process because I can’t fix any of it if I tried. I am in a frozen state of numbness where I’m allowing and waiting.

I – Investigate with interest and care.

This may show up as what you are experiencing in your body or beliefs. Is my stomach in knots? Does my heart feel heavy? Has my breathing changed? What thoughts or beliefs match where my body gives its attention?

Me: I feel exhausted with all the nothing. There are times I let out the heaviest and longest sigh I have. My legs feel heavy. I wonder if I have weights attached to them as I climb the stairs. The mad, sad, bad feeling is over my heart. My stomach feels icky.

N – Nurture with self-compassion.

What do I need? How can I give myself the space to show myself understanding, comfort, and self-compassion?

Me: Based on what I’ve written, it appears that my heart, solar plexus, and root chakras are out of whack. These areas have corresponding body parts that are causing me grief and crying out for help. I can do some targeted yoga to support those areas and myself. I feel much better on days I can get for a walk outside and have some time in nature. Exercise nurtures me a lot. Sometimes physically putting up my hand and verbally saying “stop” is useful when negative self-talks takes hold. To me, nurturing is the most important part because nothing changes if I do nothing with what I’ve recognized, allowed, and investigated.

The first three really identify what’s going on. The last part makes sure I nurture, tend to, and take care of myself. I’ve heard the nurturing step is often not completed because people don’t know what to do. Someone I know suggested that if you don’t know how to do the last step, think about how someone else you know would do it. Choose someone you view as wise and compassionate. Visualize what they would do and then apply it to your situation.

Other ideas that work for me are one or more of the following:

  • Drink some water. Hydration is a good way to reset.
  • Walk around a bit. Keep blood and oxygen moving. Stretch. Kettlebell work usually does the trick, but kettlebells aren’t always handy.
  • Oxygen flow is again the focus. Take full, long, slow inhales and exhales. Breathwork is the simplest fix to support physical and emotional changes. It can improve mood and is thought to boost immunity.

As you know, I’m all about finding a way. Walking myself through the four parts of RAIN is one way to support myself, guide myself, and work with my feelings so I can lessen the crazy and emphasize something more grounded. Crazy is too hard to maintain. Grounding offers something calmer and more stable. I don’t know about you, but I could use calmness and stability during times where there are no solid reference points and prolonged times of uncertainty and unknowns.

Mirror Mirror

At first, I thought I was really reaching to connect things together in my life. Setting and achieving physical goals kept me focused on moving forward. Some sort of emotional “ah-ha” always manifested itself through these physical goals that were in process. My evidence is below.

One

Last summer, I wanted to complete a hike that required climbing an exhausting staircase made from rocks. The last time I completed it was in the summer of 2016. My body had been through so much two years ago and even more since then. But this is what I wanted to do and felt I could achieve. I began training in spring. Stair climbing became part of my workout routine. I increased time from ten minutes, to fifteen, and to twenty minutes in my house, going from my basement to second story, over and over again. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but it did what it was supposed to do and was a super workout. I knew both my strength and endurance had grown. I accomplished my hike (on a triumphant second try) and checked it off my list.

Work was going well in my weekly sessions with my fitness coach (permission given to shout out to Forest Coaching and Studios ). I also had made the difficult decision that it was in the best interests for my health to retire from teaching second grade. Necessary emails had been sent to my superintendent, my principal, my teaching team, and finally the staff at school. Describing those emails as tough for me to write is an understatement, but they were part of the plan to move forward with continued better health and my life. So, I was retelling all this to my coach while I practiced huge steps up and down from big blocks. It was all work going toward the successful hike. They were not average size steps. She commented on my retirement emails saying, “That’s a really big step.” Yes, it was. Then it hit me as I towered over her on top of one of these blocks that physically these were really giant steps and it all was a metaphor for what I was going through in my decision process.

My hike was something I had to do. I thought it was just about proving that I could do it. It did test my physical abilities and my will. Initially, it was planned as a birthday activity. It also became a celebration of a career that had successes, challenges, and finally closure.

Two

Building strength is a continued physical goal. Again through the support of my awesome fitness coach, I had progressed from lifting eight pounds to 65 pounds over the course of six months. Whooo-hoooo! Now November, I hadn’t lifted that much since summer. I worked on it again a couple of weeks ago. My first rep was tough. The blasted weight didn’t want to be lifted. I was frustrated. I remained immobile in my lifting position and commented on what was pretty obvious.

“This is heavy.”

Duh.

Then I dug into the lift. I slowly straightened.

“But . . . I . . . am . . . stronger.”

I stood strong and tall, victorious over the challenge. I almost cried, but I achieved it, and completed all my reps, with great satisfaction. Here is another strong metaphor for the emotional strength I’ve strived to build over time in terms of decisions, plans, and support I have needed to give myself. Knowing I am physically capable reinforces that I am emotionally and mentally competent to take on everything I do. I make the choices that are best for me. I am the only person who can be me. No one else knows exactly what’s it’s like. I get to decide. I can accept it if others aren’t with me. I don’t like it, but I can accept it. I am strong. I am enough.

I am more than enough.

Three

A couple of years back, I could walk an hour fairly easily. Due to side effects being on a certain chemotherapy drug long-term, walking deteriorated bit by bit due to neuropathy and then muscle issues caused by neuropathy. I didn’t have much stamina. Again I had to start slowly from the bottom. First, I walked twenty minutes on the treadmill. Gradually, I built that up to thirty minutes, and then forty minutes. When spring came I figured I was ready for outdoor walking. Eventually, I’ve built back up to a 60 minute walk. I feel my physical stamina and endurance mirrors where I am emotionally because I am so in this life for the long haul. I have more to do and need stamina and endurance to achieve all my goals. Just like with my physical strength, I feel my physical stamina positively spurs on my emotional determination every day.

Four

Now, I am working on jumping. I do not know how long I have not been able to jump. At the very least, it is correlated to the time when I was not able to climb or walk very well. I don’t remember really trying to jump for the sake of jumping before then. My “Jump Around” bits at Camp Randall Stadium on Badger Saturdays were always movin’ and groovin’, but not very jumpin’. Recently, much to my dismay, I discovered I could scarcely muster up a hop. I felt really old! Now, I can manage a high enough forward jump to clear a super small hurdle. It still bugs me. Surely, higher and farther jumps will be the next thing on the list to conquer. Interestingly, jumping too has an effect that’s mirrored in my non-physical life. I have been visualizing more writing endeavors for myself (like blogging, finding representation for a book I want to publish, establishing a platform). I must make a leap of faith. Learning how to physically jump again has been the hardest for me, perhaps because its mirrored counterpart is equally as hard for me. Well, blogging has become a reality for me, and that bodes well for my other writing goals. I will keep jumping in leaps and bounds.

None of these are coincidences. I don’t believe in those. My physical pursuits have incredible meaning for what I am working on personally. Cancer impacts both, but it doesn’t define either. I hope you can see symbiotic mirroring in your life. I’d love to hear from you if you have stories to share.