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What Do You Know About That?: The Myth of Writing What You Know

If writers only write what they know, the world, and their writing, will be very boring spaces. Well, with a few exceptions.

Like many writers, I had a series of “careers” and a diverse education before I figured out a way to write for a living. I’ve described before how I do other things than just writing: editing, formatting, and other tasks, most of them relating to publishing. They all have one thing in common: writing about them is boring except to other writers.

So as an author, what do you write about? I mean, they say write what you know, but in many ways what I know sucks. There are only so many stories of fast food workers, Fed Ex delivery drivers, and ski bums that people can stand, right?

When we say “write what you know” we don’t mean your job, past occupations, and the criminal activities you may or may not have participated in in college. That is what research is for, and if you are not a writer you will often find them to be quite knowledgeable on several topics if you engage them in conversation.

This is because we, as writers, write what we get to know. We research, study, and become unqualified experts on any number of topics to make our stories richer. Therefore, from time to time, we get it wrong in our stories. Many of us are not police officers, doctors, lawyers, or other professions we write about. We’ve just researched them.

But there are things we can write about that we do know, and that is what we mean when we say “write what you know.”

Fear

If anyone is familiar with fear, it is a writer, regardless of how sheltered the rest of their life might have been. For the most part, though, writers have endured fear in many areas of their lives.

Every time you sit down to look at a blank page, whether it is to write an article or blog post or to start that next story or novel, a writer experiences fear: fear that the words won’t come this time, or that someone will discover how poorly we write, or worse that no one will read our work at all.

This fear is something we can put into our stories and our characters. When they are afraid, we can describe it accurately, show it to our readers. To do so, we must be open and allow our own fear to show through.

This is tough: it means we are making ourselves vulnerable. It means that in every moment of fear in our work, our readers catch a glimpse of what is inside us, and that makes for great fiction.


Blue October, Fear [Explicit]

Love

If there is one thing artists do an astonishing job at, it is love. We also tend to love imperfectly, because we are flawed, and our attention is often drawn to things it should not be. It’s hard to walk through the day and not be distracted by something that is the next story idea, even just an odd creative spark.

However, when we love, we love with everything we are and are loyal to a fault. Sometimes that love is misunderstood because our loyalties are so divided. We are loyal to our craft and our stories, often even our characters. It does not mean we don’t have enough love for others too, it just means we struggle with the balance between the real world and the fantasy we live in.

Writers are often broken and dark, and our writing is where the darkness goes so we do not spread it to those around us. When we are not writing and creating, we are dangerous, hurtful people, the gods forgive us. When we create and channel that darkness, we love with a fierce passion, and take our place among the gods.

Can we write of this struggle to love? Of course we can, because every story is a love story, whether it is in the romance genre or not. Every story has love of something woven into it. To be effective, though, we must show this love to our readers: the pain of it, the struggle, and the triumph.

Darkness

Speaking of the darkness we release through our writing, we must understand that to make it effective, we must not fear showing it to our readers. This is the thing we know so well, yet is difficult to write about. It reveals something inside us we don’t always want the world to see.


I don’t care what genre you write in, there is at some point darkness in your story. The moment the love interests part in a fight over some silly little thing, the moment the husband dies and the woman has to move on, or the moment the murder kills or the monster appears.

The monster is us. Those that are most real contain elements of our darkest secrets, our hidden flaws, the secret desire to destroy that lives within us, shrouded in the shadows of our hearts.

We must provide this darkness a place to play, to live in the light so that we do not harm those around us.

Triumph

Our victories sometimes are small. That one publishing credit. The one book or article acceptance. The one moment when we feel validated as a writer. The time when our child is actually kind or shares a story of their own. The time when we actually do get the girl (or guy), the one who understands us to our very soul and supports us.

These are the triumphs we know. These are the feelings, the emotions, the joy we can infuse into our stories the moment our hero slays the dragon, gets the bad guy, gets the girl, or finally overcomes that one issue in his life.

We must, whenever we can, balance the darkness with triumph. We must impart to our readers the one thing that keeps us going: hope.

You know more than you think as a writer. But it is the things you know in your soul that matter the most. These are the things you must write about. Write what you know. Learn what you don’t.

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Fear vs. Love

It’s not some kind of revelation. The kind that people will write down in a book, start a religion around, and then totally flip so they can kill whoever they want and feel okay about it. It’s really just restating something you already know, more than likely, and if you don’t, something you should learn pretty darn quick.

Nearly every religion shares one common theme: there’s a battle going on in the world, good vs. evil, and it never seems to end. Looking around ourselves, we see it all the time. Race, police brutality, class warfare, all of it points to the fact there are some people who do bad, some who do good, and some who seem to have no idea what the difference might be. But I think it is simpler than that. A friend and I were talking this week, and I think the real battle is between fear and love.

fearAll that is ‘bad’ comes from fear. Sound too simple? Shame=fear of what others think. Jealousy=fear of losing something (usually that wasn’t yours to possess in the first place). Hate =fear of something different. Greed=fear of someday not having enough. Envy=fear that someone else will have something more, or better than what you have. Rage=fear your voice will not be heard unless you speak louder, harsher than those opposed to you. Ah, the list could go on. But think for just a moment about almost anything you would call bad, or your belief might classify as a sin. Is there some kind of fear at the root of it?

love4All that is ‘good’ comes from love. Kindness. Compassion. Sympathy. Empathy. Selflessness. Charity. All of these stem from love. It’s hard to fault any one of them. Living any one of this list in an extreme way would only result in the praise of almost anyone. You can name those past and present who strive to live this way. For the most part they are respected, honored, and even nearly worshipped. Except by those who fear them.

None of us are the ‘good’ guys. Here’s the shitty news: not one of us is the good guys. Not one of us is kind, compassionate, and encouraging all the time. If you think you are, ask your kids, your spouse, or if you don’t have those, a close friend. If you don’t have any of those either, this might be the reason. There are those who strive to be good, and strive to do all those right things. But there is one enemy to all of them, and it’s you.

Don’t be afraid. Want to be a better person? Kinder, gentler, and doing fewer things that are bad? Stop being afraid. Much of what you fear doesn’t even matter, or won’t five years from now.

It’s not a sermon. It’s not just for writers. It just may help you if you are down this holiday season, or if listening to the news you wonder where all the hate is coming from. There are just a lot of people out there who live in fear. Don’t be one of them.

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No More Birthdays

My friend, who I went to high school with, did not have a birthday today. He should have. He should have been 45, the same age I will be in a few short weeks. He didn’t die from a drug overdose, or suicide, or anything that was his fault. He was a Marine, an avid rock climber, and a good husband and father. He had cancer.

He fought the brain tumor bravely. For several years. The cancer even went into remission. But it came back, and he lost the final fight a couple of years ago. It hit me had, not because we were close. But because he was my age. I graduated high school with him. His death seemed unfair, and reminded me of my own mortality.

Every year now, Facebook reminds me of his birthday. Tons of people still write on his wall that day, remembrances and reminders of his life, and those he touched. Instead, I choose to remember, and keep on living, and doing what I love. Here are some lessons for all of us.

“It’s not dying I’m afraid of,” a friend said the other day. “It’s not being alive that bothers me the most.”

uncle-sam-stop-whiningQuit whining. Whatever it is that keeps you from doing the work that following your dream entails, stop whining about it and find a way to conquer it. If you are battling cancer, and facing chemo and a handful of pills every morning, if a tumor is growing in your head you know will kill you eventually, you have an excuse. I’m sure there are others equally valid. But look carefully at what your current hardship is. The reason you are not doing the things you wish you were. Get past it, while you still can.

Stop being afraid. “It’s not dying I’m afraid of,” a friend said the other day. “It’s not being alive that bothers me the most.” How many people do you know that aren’t really alive? Why? Fear. The unknown is hard to face, the sacrifice of what society tells us is security for real happiness a scary thing. Because you will be departing from the norm, if there is such a thing. Here is my answer for that: who cares? When the end comes it is unlikely you will go to your grave grateful you got the latest offering from Apple. You’ll be grateful you followed your heart, and had a chance to really live.

Breathe. Look around at the beauty of the now. I’ve found regardless of your belief system, living in the present is a common theme, and though difficult it does pay off. We dream, but it is best if we are doing what we love now, rather than waiting for an elusive someday, or even worse, tomorrow. If you aren’t, look at why.

I’m not trying to diminish your pain. Or your reasons for what you do or don’t do. Hell, I’ve used all of your excuses, and as a creative writer, come up with some doozies of my own. They all seem valid at the time. But when you honestly look at how short life is, breathe, set aside your fear, and quit whining, you’ll get busy doing what you love, and start really living.

My friend would have had another birthday today. Except he didn’t. Because he isn’t here. He has no more birthdays. Someday none of us will. Do what you love now. Otherwise you might be one year older by the time you do.

Or you may never get the chance.

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Something Different for Halloween

theater-masks1For years I pretended to be someone I wasn’t, on a daily basis. It was like a Trick or Treat or Hide and Seek all the time. There were several reasons for this: fear, shame, and guilt chief of them. A little over a decade ago, I said “no more.” I was determined to be myself, at all times.

But staying true in a world that encourages hypocrisy and putting on a good face is hard, and I slipped backward into making sure everyone around me was comfortable. We’ve all done it. Then five years ago, I renewed my vow to be true to myself. And for a long while, I was. But recently, I’ve slipped backward again. So this year for Halloween, I’m taking off the mask, rather than putting one on. Call it a resolution if you will.

Fear. I try to be a giving guy, concerned for the well-being of others, often at the cost of my own. Part of that is genuine kindness, but another part is fear that standing up for myself will offend others. Born out of the fear of being unpopular, or perceived as a jerk, this holds me back from sometimes just saying “no, this is my time.” Twice recently this has risen to the fore, causing resentment from me, and even comment from others.

As of today the mask comes off. No more fear. There will come times I will simply say “this is MY time.” Sometimes my mental health, and what is going on in my life is indeed more important than helping others. A tough balance, not one I manage well. I vow to do better.

Shame. There is a certain amount of shame attached to caring for oneself. The problem is, often taking time for this so I can continue to care for others is something I perceive as selfish, producing a feeling of shame. I fall back into self-neglect just to avoid that feeling. It’s stupid and illogical, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

So starting this November, I will not be ashamed of taking care of myself. The mask that says everything is okay will be removed. I have important work to do, and it matters.

Guilt. Guilt is an expression of fear and shame. In this case often unwarranted. And there are those in my life who attempt to make me feel both. All too often I let them. If you are one of those people, be warned. I’m going to call you on your actions, let you know their effect on me, and if needed I may walk away for a time.

I’m determined. No more masks, fear, guilt or shame. This year for Halloween, I’m taking off the disguise. Here I am, the real me. Sometimes hurting, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes just in need of some time alone, or time with those few who truly understand.

Don’t be offended. Though I often appear strong, I have needs as well. It’s time to meet those, so I don’t fall apart.

Happy Halloween!

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