Write what you know.
As a creative writing student I can’t tell you how many times I’d heard that phrase. Now, as a teacher of creative writing, I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who heard the same phrase. It’s a pretty standard writing cliché. I call it a cliché, but I do partially believe in it.
When I was a beginning writer (I knew I wanted to write since the age of six) I thought I understood exactly what that meant. I knew action and adventure, galaxies far, far away, Middle-Earths, and superheroes. But when I tried writing those stories, I became disengaged pretty quickly, and I couldn’t understand why.
The blank page is daunting, and discovering material to write about is always a fantastic experience, especially when you are engaged. It took me many years to understand that when most writers take their ideas to the page, it doesn’t always turn out the way they thought it would. So they either plowed on or scrapped it and started something new. That’s kinda how it works. And practically every student I’ve had spoke of the same experience. And some have even said they got turned off of writing because of this.
Write what you know hasn’t always worked for me. But what I’ve discovered is that writing about things that interest me works a whole lot more.
Writing science fiction, fantasy, or action and adventure stories is not my strong suit, but by trying to write those kinds of stories I discovered my voice, and I knew I wanted to keep writing.
Now, I try to incorporate things I’m interested in – Star Wars, movies, music and concerts, football, and places I know a lot about – grocery stores, schools, and bowling alleys, and I try to find stories that happen around them. I keep journals about events I’ve seen around these things and places, whether I participated, witnessed, or heard about them. Sometimes these instances are only a few paragraphs, sometimes they are several pages. And sometimes I come up with fictional possibilities for them. Every now and then I come up with a potential story. Some work, some don’t.
Some stories are sparked by images that just pop into my head, and some come from ideas and concepts. And now that I’ve given myself the permission to understand that not everything works out the way I thought it would, I understand that another story or idea is waiting. I believe this permission is key.
One of the projects I’m currently in the middle of came from an image. After purchasing several CDs – Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and Queensrÿche among them, I slid one after another into the car player. As the songs played I was reminded of a friend’s band I used to see. They covered a lot of the bands I liked and even played some original material.
Listening to these CDs in my car sparked some of those memories. I saw my friend’s band playing these songs in my mind, and for whatever reason the image of a woman singing appeared. This struck me because my friend’s band is all guys, and more guys listen to and play heavy metal than women. So why did this woman appear? I didn’t know at all, so I asked myself a number of “what if” questions. What if she was part of a female cover band? What if she was younger, like in high school? And what if it was her dad’s band? The possible answers intrigued me. Then the questions snowballed, like why would her dad let her sing in his band? What if her mom didn’t like it? What if she wanted to form her own band? Suddenly I had a story concept in my head.
When I got home I immediately went to my journal and jotted down scene ideas, some imagery, song titles, bars I’d seen my friend play at – a number of things. I had no idea what the story was, or anything that it might be about, but I was interested and engaged in the material.
After a few weeks of writing scenes and trying them out for my writers’ group, I realized I had a potential book about life and death, family secrets, and something that’s in practically every story – people making choices and the consequences. But as film critic Roger Ebert has said, it’s not what the story is about, it’s how it’s about it. That’s when I realized that a lot of things I was interested in – music, concerts, bar bands, high school sports, trains and travelling, Summer and Fall, TV hosts and more were things I could write about, and even if it was stuff I didn’t know everything about, I could easily research it later.
A very influential teacher I had as an undergrad in my twenties at Columbia College Chicago told me that based on some journals I wrote in his class I was going to someday write the ultimate roadie story. I thought he was nuts. I didn’t know the first thing about being a roadie. Years later I think I understand.
Another project I’m in the middle of came from an idea I had about setting my favorite television show, MASH, in a place I know all too well – a grocery store. I worked in them, the Produce Department specifically, for nearly twenty-five years. Plenty of characters work in and shop at grocery stores, and except for John Updike’s “A&P,” I’d never seen a story nail it the way I know it.
My final semester as an undergrad I decided to write that story, especially since I had what I thought was the beginning. I spent about a year and a half on it, and at some point I wasn’t interested in it anymore. I wrote it in first person and based it on some of my own experiences, but it didn’t make it to the page the way I thought it would. So I set it aside, figuring someday I might return to it. And if I didn’t, I had given myself permission to let it not work.
Years later, after working on the heavy metal story, which I was writing in third person from multiple points of view, I wondered about that grocery store story, and if it might benefit from a different point of view. On a break from the heavy metal story, because I feel breaks are important, I approached the grocery store material in third person, and I became engaged in it once again. The material was still there, and now I’m following multiple points of view, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s about life and death, family secrets, and characters making choices and the consequences. Wow. And now some of the same things I was interested in, and some very different ones, were finding their way into this story – high school sports, rock and roll, worst summer jobs, dysfunctional families, and much more.
Write what you are interested in is something I tell all writers – students, beginners, young, young at heart, and some of these things end up being things you know. I’m a huge fan of lists. When trying to come up with material, engaging material, I suggest developing lists of things you are interested in, or that you have experience with that you are interested in, like hobbies, sub-cultures, family experiences, and work situations. Those are good places to start, and they usually end up being things you know a lot about.
Then make a list of experiences from these concepts, specific moments, perhaps stories you’ve told a thousand times or stories you’ve heard a thousand times. You can write about these things. I’m always amazed when people tell me they didn’t think they could write about real life experiences. And experience isn’t defined by age. Everyone’s experience and knowledge counts.
Then just write these instances. Don’t worry about putting them in any sort of order. Most novelists don’t write stories from beginning to end anyways. And keep writing. Some will be longer, some shorter, but before you know it you will have a bunch of scenes, and that will be something to work with and develop.
There is no one way to do this, but this is a start. And even though these ideas are real-life based, that doesn’t mean that these concepts can’t be used in science fiction, fantasy, or action and adventure stories. All engaging and memorable stories have universal elements to them.
Give your stories permission to not always work. That’s okay. Sometimes what isn’t working or engaging now may work later, or in another story. Stories need to time to breathe, too. Give them that time. And trust your instincts. They’re usually right.
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