Why Do They Tell Me to Write about What I Know?

Writing about what we know is drilled into us subconsciously from the time we write our very first How I spent my summer vacation essay for our own Miss Brooks on an August or September morning when the world outside the classroom is still calling to us. Isn’t that an awful experience when you haven’t been anywhere or done anything?! And everyone else in class is writing about their cross-country trip to Nashville, Tennessee, or their Open House visit to where their Uncle Chuck works at JPL in Pasadena. Wow! People really are sending stuff to the Moon and Mars and beyond!

Some kids manage to write about Grandma and Grandpa coming to visit, or a kind neighbor who took them out of the ghetto or barrio to see real trees and farm animals, maybe even to the beach for a day. But you, you were stuck home on the cement front steps or in the backyard with a bent peach tree and dead grass, doing nothing that you didn’t do every other day of the year.

The only difference between summer and any other day was that you didn’t have to go to school every day. If someone dropped off a load of books at your house, it made all the difference in the universe! You escaped into other worlds, at least for a few hours each day. But if you write about that for Miss Brooks and she reads it aloud to the class, everyone else will snicker. So your pencil sits frozen until you glance at the clock. Then, in a panic, you make something up and turn in your paper when the bell rings.

The truth is we should write about what we know or what we can learn about. Heaven forbid that mystery writers have done all the things they write about! Or that techno thriller writers have all been spies, or disloyal jet pilots, or manic submarine commanders. But authors read and read and read before they ever start to write. They talk to people who are experts. They join associations related to their current choice of topic. They network. They research, research, research. And eventually, they have to sit down and start writing.

Some of the very finest literature ever written is about life in small towns. It is stories about real people living real lives and dealing with real problems.

These books are written from the heart; they are about character as much as they are about plot. And it takes the highest level of skill to write them. They are not potboilers. They are not throwaway books. But if critics call what you write a potboiler, and writing a potboiler is what gets you started as a writer, if it’s what occasionally brings in a little cash to boost your spirits, then make it the best potboiler you can, something you’d be proud to show Grandma and Grandpa! Don’t trade your birthright for a mess of pottage.

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