To Write or Not to Write What You Know?

Write What You Know?

Authorities advise, “Write what you know.” I have struggled with this concept. To me, it means, “Write what you have lived” which seems to limit my possibilities. A human being’s experiences certainly build her memories, but do memories have the most direct impact on her writing?

Write What Interests You?

Writing teachers have said, “Write about what interests you.” In fact, as I wrote this statement down, I recalled my first experience with “research.” A junior high teacher asked us to write a research paper on a topic of personal interest. I chose to write on cats because I liked cats—my own was a sleek Siamese named Shan. The only other cats I knew belonged to my Aunt Blanche. Her barn cats who were essentially wild cats, quite different from my talkative, blue-eyed beauty. My first foray into research did teach me new information— geography, biology, and cat psychology. Importantly, I learned to use the Encyclopedia Britannica for “research,” instead of just reading it for fun. However, when I heard the other students’ presentations, I thought my own could have addressed a more exciting topic.

Does Writing What You Know Mean Writing About You?

Diverse genres approach “writing what you know” in different ways. Autobiographies represent “writing what you know,” at least writing what the authors remember, though they may embellish the truth. Biographies address writing what others might have known, thus, pundits tend to critique what the biographer adds. Although my book clubs’ lists contain many memoirs, I find them rather tedious with the exception of one that captured my full attention. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes what she knows. Her personal story is unique. Her style is intriguing. Her scientific knowledge is thorough. She successfully melds emotion with action based on knowledge. Despite the fact that it is a memoir, it reads like fiction. Nonetheless, writing an autobiography, biography, or memoir does not appeal to me. I want to write fiction.  Fiction’s creative potential is limitless.

Writing About a Setting You Know

As I have worked on my fiction over the years, I have played with topics with which I am quite familiar, with very personal subjects, yet also with topics of which I know little. As I have inched toward my goal of attempting to write a novel, I have realized that selecting a storyline that takes place in a familiar setting would be wise. Despite my interests in the arcane, focusing on surroundings that I know well would allow me to enhance my depiction of natural phenomena. Integrating history that reflects the decades I have lived through might help me embed verisimilitude. Regarding potential characters, I love the mix of personality types that I observe in Colorado. The quirky choices about existence evident around me could fill the pages of multiple novels. Perhaps, writing about the types of experiences and individuals I encounter would allow me to build more genuine characters as well.

Writing About the Kinds of People You Know

As a lifetime reader, I have learned how to live from fictional characters as well as from individuals around me. When I was a child, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, and Josephine March taught me to persevere. As an adult reader of French literature, I ached at the choices Phaedra and Iphigeneia had to make. As a member of a 35-year old feminist book club, I have read books by more than 400 women authors from around the world. While I share similarities with some of these heroines, the realities of our life situations have noteworthy differences.

Even so, certain types stand out in my mind and in my memory. Universal types such as women who achieve despite the challenges they face fascinate me. Men who are willing to enact nonviolent maleness attract my attention. Individuals who challenge themselves to pursue difficult, if sometimes foolish, activities fascinate me. Hence, the question I am mulling over at the moment is: “Do I write fiction about universal types or about specific individuals? Or are specific types in point of fact universal? Because reality provides much to choose from, writing about my environment will allow me to select and focus. However, with every day of writing, I continue to learn that even writing about what I know requires meticulous research. It is astounding how little I “know” about the life I have inhabited. The tiniest details require research to make sure that what I think I know is accurate.

Update on my goal setting:

  1. For the last 31 days, I have focused on my writing and delved into many areas that I never dreamed I would need to research in depth.
  2. I completed 36 pages, exceeding my goal. I even gave myself a little gift—two days to work on another project that attracts me. It was reinvigorating to place my focus on another topic momentarily.
  3. I have begun to develop a network of kindred spirits. Several creative friends have asked me to share my goal setting handout with them. Others have given me excellent feedback. I also shared my goals with a local writers group. Their questions and comments were motivating.

Resolutions for Writing

Why Am I Here?

As a retired academic who spends inordinate amounts of time with words, I am here because I am interested in the potential of sharing my experience and my work in progress via social media. During a 30-year career as director of a university program for graduate students preparing to be future faculty, I facilitated workshops on goal setting for academic success. To assist graduate students, I expanded a goal-setting method I had used to complete my doctorate. Over the years, I tinkered with my method, reworking it each year to better help the graduate students who took my workshops complete their degrees. It was a thrill when one came galloping into my office after six months or a year, blurting out with unbridled enthusiasm, “I followed your model! I just defended my dissertation! Thank you!”

My Goal Setting Model

Most goal setting models focus on setting measurable goals—such as completing a chapter in a certain amount of time. Producing a work of fiction fits into this framework. To complete either an academic document or a work of fiction, one is required to work with others, produce original research and text, and meet deadlines. The method I developed required them to 1) verbalize their desired end objective (their dream career goal) to another person, 2) write down their goals and what was required to complete them, 3) be honest and write down the current state of their progress and work, 4) acknowledge their fears, the obstacles they might encounter, and the individuals who might support them in these areas, 5) examine and up-date their progress on a weekly and monthly basis, and 6) report back to their confidant or thesis advisor on how they were doing.

Applying My Goal Setting Model to Writing Fiction

When I found time at home to write for myself, I journaled or experimented with fiction. I even wrote some poetry, but I neglected to set my own writing objectives down on paper. Never did I discuss my interest in writing fiction with others. Nor did I consider moving toward publication, so I never dealt with my fears or the possible complications I might encounter. I never asked anyone for feedback on my work, completely missing out on the evaluative component. In other words, I did not apply my own goal setting method to my personal aspiration to be a published novelist. Thus, my file is filled with under-developed, unfinished work. I wrote but my efforts did not lead to a completed product.

During the course of my career, access to the internet became common. Social media soon appeared. Blogging became an opportunity for individuals to share their work. However, when I initially learned about blogs from a journalism graduate student, I never considered a blog as something I would like to pursue. In my workshops, it never occurred to me to suggest that graduate students might benefit from blogging about their work. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps a blog could have helped them connect with others who are interested in similar subject areas, providing them with an extended research network. Perhaps blogging could have helped them learn to write and to budget their time well. Perhaps blogging could have awakened ideas floating below the surface. As I mulled this over, I realized that perhaps combining goal setting with blogging could develop the structural support writers of original work need to accomplish their own creative goals. I decided to experiment for a year and determine if setting goals and blogging about my progress might help me produce a publishable work. I resolved to discuss my progress with my readers. I resolved to face my fears and potential obstacles. I realized that I want to open my work up to comment and suggestions, having a conversation with others who share similar goals.

Thus, I set four goals for 2018:

1) Focus on my creative writing and do the research to support it;
2) Complete a draft novel by the seventh of December 2018, writing 30 pages per month;
3) Document my progress through a blog to be posted the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2018; and
4) Develop a network of kindred spirits who are willing to share their own goals, progress, and observations with me.

This concept might be completely unexciting to some readers, but intriguing to others. It might seem humdrum to some writers, but inspirational to others. Whether you are a reader or a writer or a dissertator, I look forward to your comments. If you are drawn to join me, feel free to set your own goals, following the six steps outlined above. Then, follow along with my blog once a month from January 7, 2018, through December 7, 2018. Make comments or ask questions in the dialog box below, if you are so inclined. Perhaps my blogging and your comments and questions will stimulate my creative productivity and your own.

Happy New Year! And, as my thesis advisor emphasized long ago, “Don’t get it right. Get it written.”

Making My Known Known

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant…! Making your own known known is the important thing. —Georgia O’Keeffe

Artists and Writers

Artists often admire writers and writers sometimes venerate artists. One artist that I appreciate is Georgia O’Keeffe. If I am not sending cards from my husband’s art collection, I choose postcards or greeting cards of her paintings to send to friends and family. My trips to New Mexico introduced me to the wide-open skies, colors, and solitude that she loved and that I first experienced through her work. When I visited Ghost Ranch the vista before my eyes revealed the reality of her choices for tone and drama. Even so, it was reading her biographies, particularly Roxana Robinson’s Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, that led to my fascination with her artistic mind—which the French call one’s “imaginaire.”

Quotes and Ideas

Throughout my life, I have collected quotes from publications I enjoy. My note file includes several of O’Keeffe’s statements on self and creativity, such as the one quoted in my tagline above. Despite the fact that “success” was not her goal, she succeeded admirably. Her self-exploration and her desire to express her artistic vision inspired her to get up in the morning and go into her studio to paint. She disdained art critics. When she stated, “I don’t mind it being pretty,” it seemed to be a retort to them specifically. I agreed when she said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

From the Real to the Created

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are evidence that she did succeed in selecting subjects, did reduce her images to focus on the necessary, and did expose the stark beauty of genuine phenomena. This process allowed her to make her “known” known. Through this blog and through my creative work, I hope to select, eliminate, emphasize, and write as beautifully as she paints. My aspiration is to come to know my own known—my own “imaginaire” and communicate the significance of the individuals whose stories I write.