Friday, April 21, 2017

Rewriting Rule #2

A popular post from January 2008

by Annette Lyon

Right up there with what is probably the most touted rule about writing, "Show, don't tell" is another rule, one that pretty much drove me crazy when I was a young writer.

You'll remember this one: "Write what you know."

This is such an ingrained rule that my university creative writing professor even had us write down a list of 100 things we knew and could therefore write about.

My list had things like braces, camping, and growing up with three siblngs.

Oooooh. Exciting stuff.

Here I was, staring at my list as an aspiring writer, thinking that—crap—I didn't know enough of anything to write. I had a bit of panic as I looked over my list of 100 things. I had wanted to write since second grade. Maybe I just wasn't cut out for it, because, well, I lacked the interesting life, the angst, that came with being a writer.

I came from a family with two parents that were still married. I wasn't abused. No one I knew was drug-addicted or homeless or otherwise having a more "interesting" life.

What in the world could I write about when I knew about nothing?

Fortunately, I tossed my list into the trash just as soon as I could. That teacher, despite being a great writer himself, didn't have the slightest idea how to teach writing.

I've read far too many early novels from beginning writers that are nothing more than memoirs in disguise—all because they were trying to write what they "knew."

I've since learned to tweak that all-knowing rule. It should say:

Write what you're willing to learn about.

Isn't that freeing? Suddenly an entire new universe of writing possibilities opens up.

Writers are by nature a creative lot, which is in our best interest. We read up on weird things that may appear later in our work, or we seek out topics that we need to educate ourselves on so we can write about them.

Here are a few of many things I've written about that I didn't know before but researched so I could write about them:
  • Profiling criminals
  • Poisons
  • Weapons
  • The history of denim
  • Horse illnesses
  • Flora and Fauna in Arizona
  • Boot styles in the late 1800s
  • printing press history
  • Early rock quarry tools
  • Blacksmithing
  • Police procedure
  • International laws on restraining orders
  • and much more
What would have happened if I had decided that gee darn, oh well, but I can't write about a house burning down because I've never been in a burning house? I wouldn't have written what became my break-out novel in my market.
Toss out "Write what you know" and pick up "Write what you're willing to learn about."
You'll be a better writer for it. Your work will thank you.

3 comments:

Julie Wright said...

GREAT post! Fabulous reminder. And hey Annette, I have been in a burning house. If you ever want to write about it, you can call me for research :)

Karlene said...

So many teachers say that. Irks me. Like your version so much better.

I always said to myself that I know about love and laughter, sadness and loss, greed, jealousy, hope, faith. Ultimately, that's what everyone writes about. The rest is window dressing.

Rachelle said...

Well gee, I'm glad your teacher didn't get a hold of someone like Tolkien or there would be a lot of sad folk in the world!
What about "write what you can imagine." :)