But what if “what you know” isn’t particularly exciting? To those of you whose day-to-day lives aren’t quite thrilling enough to be immortalized in writing, you are not alone. The good news is, well, there are two pieces of good news.
First, what you know might be more than you think. My initial short list of what I know consists mostly of where I grew up (Texas) and what I’ve been doing with most of my time (work, school, writing, and so on). I’ve recently realized that, with this list, I’ve been selling myself short. I also know about my interests, about my quirks, and various anecdotes, not to mention the interests, quirks, and anecdotes of my friends, family, coworkers, people who speak too loudly on buses or in coffee shops, etc.
Second, what you know is not a static set of knowledge. It changes to encompass the things you learn. Cue example . . .
A few years ago, I had a creative writing instructor who, upon our class’s repeated request, gave us one of his own stories to read and discuss. Among other things, the story involved a character interested in ornithology discussing birds he encountered in a South American jungle. I asked my instructor why he had chosen ornithology and what history he had with birds prior to writing the story.
Perhaps he saw an interesting bird through the window as he sat down to write, or maybe he’d had a latent interest in birds that was suddenly piqued by a random event. Either way, he wanted to write a story about ornithology so he learned about ornithology.
With that in mind, I’d like to propose a change, or at least an addition, to the old “write what you know” bromide (are you listening, authors of how-to-write books everywhere?). How about we encourage each other to “write what we learn” instead. It’s more interesting for writers, and, if my experience has taught me anything, for the readers.
So, what do you think? Have you ever studied a new field or pursued an interest in order to write about it later?
Michelle is currently a student at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is pursuing dual degrees in Business and in Plan II, an interdisciplinary liberal arts program. In addition to interning with WriteByNight, she spends her time writing short stories and editing just about anything she can.