As a writer, it often seems that we are so limited in what we can say well. When you search for topics, especially topics you can make money with, it can be hard to find something that is a good fit.
The eminent poet, Howard Nemerov is quoted as saying, “Write what you know, that should leave you a lot of free time.”
This bit of advice gets tossed out a lot and most of the time it is made fun of. Surface thinkers often say it’s stupid, because then you couldn’t possibly write fiction. Other say it’s impractical because it would leave out writing about a topic from research, but for me, it has a bit of a deeper meaning.
It is the ultimate writer’s version of Oscar Wilde’s oft quoted sentiment, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. “ Or Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.”
This is something all writers should know!
Even as a ghost writer trying to capture someone else’s “voice” on the page, we are at our most powerful when the truth that lies within us rises to the surface and bleeds out into our work. Here is how I would phrase it, to make it a little more accessible, “Write from your passion.”
Write what makes you tick, or feel, or think a little deeper. Don’t try to make everyone happy by writing what you think they want to hear. Tell me what you think is important. Get it out there. Your voice is just as important as every other. It can be more so if you take the time to develop your perspective and hone what that means to a sharp edge.
Let me share a personal story with you.
Last night, I spent some time with one of my four sons (yeah, I have four daughters too, crazy, right?) anyway, we used to own a theatre training studio where we produced Broadway musicals with young actors and this son was so passionate about what we did. We had to close it down five years ago, but my youngest brother opened a similar one in a suburb on the other side of Oklahoma City, where we live.
Gideon, my fourteen year old son, got invited to fill in as part of the chorus for their production of West Side Story and it was his first real musical in about five years. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him perform again.
Afterwards, we did something I have missed for all these years, we went out with the young cast and some of their parents to an IHOP. If you have ever been a drama kid, going out like this after the last performance of a show is probably something you recognize and treasure. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.
Anyway, there was this mom there talking to me, who had been stage manager of the production. She was talking about how when she was in high school she had been in competitive drama and had done okay, but in several years of competition had never brought home the big prize.
So, the teacher asked them all to do an original 8 to 10 minute oratory as a class assignment. She presented hers and it was so good that the teacher insisted she enter it in competition. She didn’t feel that was her strong suit, so she resisted, but others added their encouragement and she eventually entered the piece. It won state.
So, why did this happen? She was at a loss, until I asked, “What was your topic?”
She got quiet, looked down at the table and almost whispered, “Poverty.”
Even 20 years later I did not have to ask if this had personal meaning to her, it was evident it did. I suggested that this hidden passion was what had sparked her winning performance. It was, she admitted and she had never thought about it like that.
She was true to herself!
She had written what she knew. She had tapped into who she was at her core and shared a piece of it and the result was something she couldn’t produce until she did it! That is so key in the life of a writer!
So, how does that play out in a writer’s daily life. Well, I cannot speak for you, but for myself, it works like this.
· I have to find some connection to a piece of work to even accept it. I will write about topics I was not originally interested in, but not often.
· I connect research information using facts I already know to better understand new topics. So many things in life are analogous. Learning to do this is a great tool.
· Most of my lead ins come from my thoughts on the topic, correlating some quote, or some observation that I think I have in common with my reader into the introduction.
· I try to get inside the head of the person who is reading the piece. What do they want to know? So, I go learn that, and then share it! (this comes easy for me, it is an acting technique in preparing roles.)
These are just a few of the ways that I use this everyday. But, what if you are not as awesome as me? Trust me. I am not that awesome. Just ask my kids. Well, initially they would say I was, of course, but then you would find out what a nerd I am and that I am a slop, that I like to put things off to the last second, and that I get bored easily. All of which plays against me to an extent. But, it can also all be used.
So, how do you find things that you can use in your writing that are “true” for you?
If this post is not an example of that, I don’t what I could say to demonstrate how this is done. Use your life experience. So, you never lost the love of your life? You have experienced loss before. It’s very much the same thing, now, apply that experience. You’ve never been rich. Maybe not, but you have had at least one day where you could have what you wanted and didn’t feel limited right? Use that experience.
Just as in acting you don’t have to have been a criminal mastermind to understand the desire to control things to your advantage, or to have power over someone who makes you feel powerless, in writing, you don’t have to be the president to know what it is to have job pressures and responsibilities.
Use your imagination to fill in the gaps.
Readers are not asking you to tell them what it feels like to be someone else. They are asking you to help them understand it. They want to know what a thing feels like in the human experience, not always, were you there?
Another example of this is with the current political discourse in our country. For those who feel our system of policing lacks something ( like me) or that many young patriots lives are lost to causes that are more commercial than altruistic, the idea that if you have not been a soldier, or police officer, you have no valid opinion, is a common one.
I don’t have to be one to know what I think it should be!
While it is true, I have never had to hold a weapon and make choices about another person’s continued existence, I know what I want my country and my community to be. I can see where the police departments actions and the military’s policies line up with that, and where I feel they are lacking.
Here’s an example. I am a carpenter by trade. If I come to your home and hang your front door upside down, you don’t need to know how to hang a door to look and see that something is very wrong with my work. My mistakes are evident!
So, you don’t have to have hands on experience to comment on things in your writing. We all have a great deal of understanding about how the world works and when it doesn’t. We are all capable of seeing mistakes that have huge consequences and outlining what we see as the problem.
· Being able to write about something from an outside perspective, without day to day knowledge of the inner workings is a skill you can develop and you can have a valid opinion on topics just by educating yourself.
· By relating things you see to things you have experienced, you can build a bridge to understanding what another person goes through on some level.
· You should also be careful of letting that turn into a critique that goes beyond your ability to state your opinion and steps into telling someone else what their specific actions or responses should have been.
Write what you know!
You may not think this is a lot. You may be young and lacking in experience. You may feel your opinion isn’t valid. You may even think that no one will read what you write.
You are so much more capable than you know. I don’t care who you are. You have experienced thousands of days from a unique perspective. You have learned to do so many things that I cannot even begin to do. Really. That’s where you start. It’s not, “Learn everything before you start writing.” It is “write what you know”. Write what you know already. Start from there. Write what you feel, or think, those are things only you can know! Write what you learn. Write what comes to mind when you empathize with your audience. Write awesome stuff and you will never have a lack of readers once you find your audience.
Trust me on this, there is someone out there that will share your perspective, or appreciate being challenged by it. There is. There are likely a lot of them. The desire to share your voice is enough to indicate you should do it. Do it the best you can. I bet you will be surprised by how much you know!