I remember my first creative writing classes in college. (If at this point you’re already ready to X out of my blog, I know how absolutely boring and smothering college reminiscences are. Trust me. Only professors and students believe their college lives are important. Bear with me and we’ll get through this together. I promise.)
We were given the most ludicrous advice since Shakespeare had Polonius tell his son, “This above all to thine own self be true.” The line has been praised by students and teachers all over the world, by the way, though no one ever bothered to ask one important question:
What if you’re an idiot?
In that case, being true to yourself would seem to be a bit of a rotter.
And honestly we’re all idiots sometimes. If you don’t believe me, look at some of the Deep Thoughts your friends have been saying on Facebook. I guarantee you that some your own Deep Thoughts have probably been just as bad.
Colleges and even classrooms of secondary education are a lot like this. Loads of bad advice sicklied o’er with the pale cast of happy-happy-joy-joy diversity Styrofoam.
Years later in a graduate class focused on teaching students to write, a former professor rhapsodized about helping students find their Own Style.
Find their Own Style! Like it was waiting right around the corner!
Wait a minute.
No. It wasn’t.
Instead, the professor told the class that it was a gem of rich potential burning in the souls of America’s youth.
Nevermind that the youth are a mob of under-educated barbarians (frequently taught by mobs of graduate-degreed semi-educated barbarians)
The sum total of this farce is that colleges and high schools pump out graduates whose thinking skills are a match for writing skills that lack enough substance to stick to the bottom of a toilet bowl.
If you think I’m talking about you, sit back and relax.
I probably am.
This lesson she preceded with the pithy wisdom that in order to accomplish this magical, happy-happy-joy-joy feat of pedagogy, future educators should no longer teach students with the attitude that they were, “The Sage On The Stage.”
No. Under the new enlightened order promulgated by university thought clones, teachers were supposed to act as a student’s “Guide On The Side.”
Students have voices of their own, and we were supposed to guide them along the yellow brick road of happy-happy-joy-joy self-discovery.
The only problem is that students aren’t prepared for it.
Many adults aren’t prepared for it, either.
What they get is advice like I got.
Write what you know.
The problem—and students always make funny faces whenever they’re told this—is that they don’t “know” very much. And they KNOW they don’t know very much.
When I was told that in my writing classes, I felt like I had been had. Mostly what I wound up writing were stories about college life. Most of my classmates wrote stories about college life. Even one of my professors wrote a novel about tenure track within the University.
Drip . . . Drip . . . Drip . . . Drop . . . Drop . . . Drop . . .
Do you hear that?
That’s what my brains sounded like as they ran out of my ears. Chances are, if you’re a student (or even adult), if you Write What You Know, you’ll probably give me—or anyone reading your work—an aneurysm.
So if I’m telling you NOT to Write What You Know, what am I telling you?
If you want to write a good story, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW EMOTIONALLY. You do that, and you’ll come closer to hitting your goal.
Now with that said, if you want to do an emotionally poignant story about a dark and brooding, emo-goth neurologist that finds a cure for multiple sclerosis while battling his vampyric addiction to blood, I hate to break it to you, but you’re kinda going to have to know a bit about neurology.
The good news is that if you’re a student, you’ve probably experienced the pain of loss and humiliation. You’ve been down the road of dashed hopes. You may even know what it feels like to win a sports tournament or break four boards all at once in your taekwondo class. These are things that can be transubstantiated into fine stories. Why? Because the emotions are what get your readers ten out of nine times.
You’ve emotionally experienced enough to spin a good yarn, even at a young age. As you go through the laborious and time consuming task of gaining the specific levels of knowledge to help you to Write What You Know, when you stick to the more familiar grounds of writing what you know emotionally, you can more than make up for the rotten advice of Writing What You Know!
Look, writing is not easy. It never was supposed to be easy. Why do you think even some of the smartest people you know become dithering idiots on Facebook? I know my message in this blog entry may be something of a downer, but I really want you to consider what I’ve said.
Until you’re fairly competent to write with your head, start with your gut. Do that. Try it. Then I want you to let me know how it worked for you.
In forthcoming blog posts, I will touch more on this subject. I will also discuss such goodies as Mood, Tone, Conflict, Setting, and Personification. I’ve got ideas about those—at least ones that have worked for me, and I’m sure if they don’t work for you, we can figure something out that will.
Until then, write from you guts and Write What You Know Emotionally.