"Write what you know."
As writers, we have at one time or another heard this. Perhaps a well-meaning friend told us. Perhaps we read it in a periodical. Or, perhaps like me, you heard it spoken to one of my favorite literary heroines in "Little Women".
Jo is, without a doubt, my alter ego. I've seen three versions of the movie and the one that always speaks to me most is the most recent with Winona Rider playing lead. My mother and I (whom, I should add here, I call "Marmee") were watching it years ago and she said, "You are my Jo, you know that?" Yes, Marmee. I do know that.
Jo's dream is to make it on her own, as a writer. A very dear friend, however, after reading one of her stories, remarks that it is not her. That she should write what she knows. This, of course, is the last thing Jo wants to hear. I should also say it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
Write what I know? Who cares about what I know? I want adventure, magical wardrobes and flying tigers. Sadly, I have yet to find a wardrobe that contained more than mothballs and coats, nor have I yet to see a tiger fly. Adventures? I've had a few. But nothing like I dream. I scour the bookshelves in search of travel journals and essays, gobbling up the tales are far away lands and the people who have been there. While I have been known to travel to far away lands from time to time (or just do crazy things right here on American soil), I still feel as though what I know is a far cry from what the world wants to read.
The other day, I decided to use my magazine addiction to my advantage. I took out an issue and started hunting for ideas. Ideas for business as well as pleasure, ideas for possible articles. My idea was not to copy articles already in print, but to glean from them and figure out how I could take a general idea, subject, and make it my own. To my pleasant surprise, I found quite a few ideas (and I'm still gathering from my endless supply of periodicals). Also, to my surprise, was the subject matter of the thoughts and phrases, the craft and essay ideas that moved me the most. Chickens. Cooking. Tide Pools. Trees. Pillows. Things I know. Everyday things that I have experience with, that I can take photos of and research, first hand, to my heart's content.
Hmmm. Perhaps there's something to this "write what you know" commission. Does that mean we shouldn't branch out into the unknown, take a chance, a leap of faith, from time to time? Of course not. What would life be without those blind leaps? Dull, that's what. No, what I think it means is, no matter what subject matter you write, be it science fiction or down home southern murder, you should write from your own experience. I've never murdered anyone, but I know what it's like to kill an army of ants intruding upon my space. I know what it's like to lose a loved one. I know what it's like to hurt, to cry, to laugh, to live. It's these emotions, these experiences, no matter how mundane they may seem, that we draw upon and infuse into our unique tales.
Next time you sit down to write (or draw, or paint, or garden) ask yourself, "What do I know?" You'll be surprised at the wisdom that is just waiting to be plucked from the ever fertile soil of your life.
What do I know? I'm ready to find out.