I’m sure you’ve heard the old saw “write what you know”, right?
What the hell does that even mean?
I know, I know... people mean well when they say it. I’m sure they are trying to give you what they believe is good advice.
But, let’s be honest here... did it really help you to hear that?
Do you really know what it means when someone says that to you?
(there used to be a Snoopy pic here:-)
(there used to be a Snoopy pic here:-)
Ok, now that we’re channeling the Snoopy muse, let’s get to it!
I can only bet that when someone tells you to write what you know, they are trying to say that when you start writing think first on a subject about which you feel you are an expert.
Well... that narrows things down quite a bit.
Come on... show of hands... how many of you feel like you are an expert about something?
Ok... well, how many of you feel you have at least a “jack-of-all-trades” level of knowledge and (ahem) expertise about something?
Wow. Ok then... moving on.
Many of us, most of us more likely, cannot profess to be “experts” about much of anything. Especially not something that we hope a large percentage of people equal to the population of India would be interested in.
If I were to write about “what I know”, I would be writing about Linux servers (computer stuff to all you non-technical folks). I am a Systems Expert. I could write ALL DAY about the benefits of integrating Linux Servers into your data center.
That would not interest very many people. At least, not as many as I would like.
I can hear you all now -- “So... what then? Just what the hell good is this “write what you know” advice, and, more importantly, just what the hell am I supposed to write about today? Huh? Come on, tell me! This blank paper isn’t going to get dirty all by itself!”
Ah my little plotters... that’s PRECISELY what I am going to tell you about today!
Well, er... not the part about telling you what to write. That’s up to you. I meant the part about giving you better advice than the “write what you know” stuff, cause, you know, well... that’s pretty stupid advice when it comes right down to it.
I have a better mantra for you. One that I believe ALL writers can use to find a better muse.
That’s right. Use your LIFE.
Um... just what the hell does that mean?
I’m using HELL a lot today... weird. And lots of ellipses... strange....
Just keep reading grasshopper.
What it means to USE LIFE
If you really want to write what you know, just look to your own life for inspiration.
I’m not talking about what you do... look back to my Linux server reference if you don’t get what I mean about that.
Let me give you an example of what I mean to use your own life for inspiration.
A few weeks ago in another blog post I mentioned an incident that happened one summer when I was a kid involving a little league baseball game, an ice cream cone and a camper full of teenage kids on a hot summer day.
Well... it’s time to tell that story, and I will use this as catalyst for the point I am trying to drive home about using your life to find inspiration.
It was a dark and stormy night...
Just after the game my dad offered to buy everyone drinks from the concession stand. My two older brothers, the team pitcher and catcher, had won the game and they were parched. My sister and her friend screamed through the whole game, not for my brothers really, more for the cute pitcher on the other team.
Either way, they were thirsty too.
I wasn’t really thirsty. The cool water from the fountain had been enough for me.
What I wanted was ice cream.
Ahh... that would cool me off for sure.
I’d had a good game too. Being batboy is hard work, almost as hard as pitching. And, I didn’t interrupt the game once by running out to get the bat too early like I did at last week’s game. I’d worked hard at not doing that. I’d felt pretty stupid when I heard all the men in the crowd laughing and all the women saying “Awww how cute!”
Anyway, I felt like I kind of deserved an ice cream cone.
But dad said no way. I said I didn’t want anything then.
I waited outside the concession stand to teach my dad a lesson. If I couldn’t get ice cream then I wouldn’t talk to him. That’d show him.
Mr. Horton, one of my dad’s coaches, saw me as he walked up with his son Skip, another player on my brothers team.
“Hey Paul! You getting a drink?”
“Naw,” I said and kicked the ground with my tennis shoes, wishing I could buy metal cleats like the older boys because they made cool sounds when you walked on the asphalt.
Mr. Horton gave me a slow look.
“No money?” he asked.
Now that was not really the truth, but I saw a spark of hope.
I shook my head slowly and tried to look as sad as I could.
“Well,” Mr. Horton said looking at Skip who was already partially inside the cool darkness of the concession stand door. “I was just getting ready to buy Skip a drink. I bet I could spring for another.”
Now I knew that a cone was only $.10 cents more than a drink, so I pulled out all the stops and played my best Hollywood award winning acting part.
“That’s OK,” I said and kicked the ground again. “I really wanted a cone, but... well... nevermind.”
Believe it or not I actually started to walk away.
“Hey, Paul!” Mr. Horton called out.
I stopped but didn’t turn around yet because I was silently mouthing a quick bargain to God that if I got this cone I would be the best kid all week long for my mom and dad. Please God... PLEASE!
I slowly turned around. Mr. Horton was smiling.
“I think I could spring for a cone, too.”
So I got my cone.
I was waiting back outside the concession stand again before I realized I’d forgotten about my whole family.
See, there was about ten games all ending at the same time so there was people everywhere!
I was watching a few kids a little older than me playing cup ball in the asphalt walkway that led back out to the parking lot.
Cup ball’s cool, but I could never make the cups stick together well enough to actually play it. See, the big kids with stronger arms would take about ten cups and squash them together really hard until they made like a ball or something. Then you just use your hand like a bat and hit it as hard as you can. This was a whole lot better than playing with a real ball, because you wouldn’t get yelled at cause no one could ever hit it hard enough to get out into the real baseball fields.
So that’s what I was watching while my dad and everybody else walked out to the parking lot to load up in the camper.
I only realized this was my first mistake when my older brother cuffed me on the ear as I watched the cup ball game.
“Come on fart-face! Dad says to hurry!”
Holy crap! I’d forgotten we were leaving. I ran after my brother like a dog was chasing me. When dad says hurry, you better hurry.
He had a saying that went something like “When I say jump you better ask how high!” He had another one too, but I can’t repeat the whole thing. It was like if he said the “S” word I’d better squat and grunt. If he wasn’t around we’d sometimes laugh about that one. But only when he was not around.
When we caught up, I realized my second mistake.
“Just where in the hell did you get that?” dad said, snarling like a mad dog. Everybody else kept on walking. They knew better.
“What?” I asked stupidly, my eyes slowly sinking to the cone still sticking up out of my hand. I’d forgotten to ditch the cone! Oh crap was I in trouble! Dad had specifically said I could not get a cone.
“Who got you that?” he spat out at me, barely containing the rage. He grabbed my shoulder hard and got down real close to my face and was acting like he didn’t want to have to yell in front of all the people. I knew first hand that he wouldn’t hold back forever.
“I... uh... I don’t know...”
“You damn well do too know who bought it! Now tell me who!”
“It was... it was... it was Mr. Horton,” I said nearly whispering.
Dad’s whole body was shaking and it wasn’t cause he was cold. Bad enough I’d gotten someone to buy me a cone, but his own coach? Unforgiveable.
Without taking his eyes off me he dug into his pants pocket and drew out three dull quarters. He threw them on the ground in a pile of dirt that had somehow collected right there underneath us on top of the asphalt walkway.
“Pay him back,” was all he said. Then he let go of my shoulder with a push and walked on toward the parking lot and the camper.
I wasn’t crying, not really. I knew how to hold it all back pretty good. I scooped up the quarters and lit out of there.
The ball diamonds at 3&2 were set up in a wheel-spoke like pattern, and the asphalt walkways went in two opposite directions leading to two separate parking lots on either side of the diamonds. Somehow, can’t say how, I knew that Mr. Horton always parked in the lot opposite where my dad always parked.
I had to hurry.
Running at almost full speed, and wishing again I had metal cleats cause they make an even cooler sound when you run on asphalt, I headed out to find Mr. Horton.
When I found him I jammed the three quarters at him and breathlessly mouthed a thank you.
“What’s this?” Mr. Horton said confused.
“Dad says to pay you,” I said grasping at a painful stitch in my side. “Gotta run!”
Mr. Horton’s face got all screwed up and I wondered if he was getting sick. That would be gross. And probably funny. But I couldn’t stick around to see it. I turned and ran, still clutching my cone. See, I figured since dad didn’t swat it out of my hand when he had the chance then it was still free game.
“But it was only $.65 cents!” Mr. Horton yelled at my back.
“Keep it!” I shouted back without turning.
Catching a quick lick of the quickly melting cone I bolted back toward the other parking lot, thinking if I was lucky I could probably finish off half of it before I got back to the camper and my dad. I knew he would not let me keep it in front of all the other kids. Bad example and all, needs a whipping boy, yada, yada.
So, with what I figured was one last lick I jumped the dirt pile where dad had deposited his quarters and laid it in for the last lap out to the parking lot.
But when I looked up, there was the camper headed down the long driveway that led out to the road.
They were leaving. Without me.
That son-of-a-bitch was leaving me behind!
I ran harder than ever.
They were almost to the stop sign.
I was halfway down the driveway.
He was turning left, getting on the road.
I was at the stop sign.
He was gone.
I was huffing and not pretending to hold back the tears anymore.
He’d left me.
The melting ice cream cone drooped out of my hand and fell to the ground mixing up with dirt crumbs and rocks. I didn’t want it anymore anyway.
Whew! That was a bit longer than intended! And, apologies, I still get a little weepy when I write and then re-read that story. It’s (mostly) a true story. Only a little embellishment.
But that’s a great example of what I want you to understand.
Hopefully I poured out all the emotions I feel when I think about that time in my life.
And guess what?
There’s a TON of stuff in there I can draw on for other writing examples. Sure there’s kid stuff and parental relationships, etc.
But there’s also political structures and hierarchical organizational structures! (dad’s and coaches relationship, the division of kids playing cup ball).
And sex! (ewww... I hate using that term when I think of my sister and her friends ogling teenage boys, but you get what I mean).
That’s how I break all this stuff down into a usable mantra I call USING LIFE.
I have TONS of experiences like these from which I can draw on to make a story believable.
Say for instance I have a scene in a sci-fi novel where a character is building a new type of interstellar hyper-drive for a starship.
Am I an expert on interstellar hyper-drives?
Umm... hell no??!!
But... with a little research, I CAN gather a functional understanding of a few specifics about interstellar hyper-drives and then... here’s the magic sauce... I can PERSONALIZE IT.
That’s right... that’s what I said.
The key to making things entertaining and believable is to personalize it.
Of course you need to do your research and become as familiar as possible on the particular subject you’ve chosen to write about.
But all the research in the whole wide world will be dry without personalization.
Take that character and give her some backstory baby! Expose her relationship with her father, or brother, or her lover. Show us readers why we should be interested in her.
If you can do that by drawing on your own personal relationships you will successfully pull the reader into a world you have just made interesting and entertaining.
Trust me... you CAN do it!
Thanks for reading! (and sticking with me this long!)
Copyright © 2012 Paul Philip Carter