A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Write What You Know. NO!
There’s a rule that’s bandied around at writing conferences, via online courses, and in most of the books on writing technique. The phrase is used so often that it has almost become de rigueur for any presenter or author to include (as though it was carved on a piece of granite perched on the portal of the “Writer’s Hall of Fame”). It is portrayed as THE CARDINAL RULE for every writer—novice or experienced—to follow. Ignore it and you will die a penniless and heartbroken author . . . a shell of your former self . . . a shadow of what might have been . . . a lost and lonely scribe wandering a desert of unfulfilled desires.
Write what you know.
I reject that phrase. Categorically! That phrase, perhaps more than any other writing admonition, has probably curbed, derailed, deflated, disrupted, wrecked, and spoiled more writing projects than any other. It has put a focus on what is important to the writer, rather than an emphasis on what might be meaningful to a reader. It is less about the audience and more about self-interests. It is egocentric rather than reader-centric. And, I suspect, following it religiously, may lead to more rejection notices than any other “advice” proffered in the more than 100,000 writing instruction books currently available on Amazon.
It is a bucket of water on authorial fires.
For example, I know a lot about growing up in southern California, a lot about the best surfing spots along the West Coast, a lot about attending college in Arizona, a lot about serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, a lot about relocating to Pennsylvania, a lot about struggling as a teacher, and a lot about teaching college. Is there a book in all that stuff? Maybe yes, but most likely no. They are my personal experiences—ones that consumed large portions of my life—but that alone doesn’t make them book-worthy . . . at least for an audience of 6- to 10-year-olds.
For me, writing is a process of discovery . . . a process of learning new things and sharing my curiosity and enthusiasm about that learning with young readers. It’s discovering what I don’t know and bringing youngsters along for the ride. It’s a journey—a most incredible journey—into the unknown, the mysterious, and the unfamiliar. It’s all about opening eyes, investigating possibilities, and filling in mental blanks. It’s about new visions, rather than old familiar vistas.
- When I initiated A is for Anaconda: A Rainforest Alphabet, I didn’t know much about the flora and fauna of this unique ecosystem. So, I conferred with several environmental biologists. The book went on to win the New York State Reading Association Charlotte Award (2012).
- When I began Tall Tall Tree, I was completely ignorant about the critters that lived high in the canopy of redwood trees. I spent a week hiking among these arboreal giants and the resulting book was selected as an Outstanding Science Trade Book by the Children’s Book Council (2018).
- When I started The Tsunami Quilt, I knew next to nothing about the generation of tsunamis and their long-term effects on human lives. I visited Laupāhoehoe, Hawaii and talked to one of the world’s leading tsunami experts. The resulting book was eventually selected as a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year (2007).
- When I began Near One Cattail, I had only a passing knowledge of the dynamics of wetland environments. So, I got a pair of galoshes and waded through a dozen mucky swamps. The book was honored with the 2005 Green Earth Book Award.
In last month’s column I talked about the importance of passion and awe in our writing for children. Here’s one of my statements from that posting: “ . . . without awe and passion we simply write words, rather than sharing the wonder of seeing things anew or the joy of moving beyond ‘our small bordered worlds.’” Writing what we know seldom generates the same level of awe and passion in readers as it does for our own egos. True, it may be “enthusiastic writing”—but mostly for the author; perhaps less so for the reader. For a story (fiction or nonfiction) to resonate with a reader, it needs a fervent insight into a character’s psyche, a zealous pursuit of an obscure fact about the natural world, an ardent description of a mythical kingdom, or an obsessively detailed examination of an unknown historical figure. It needs passion and awe—commodities not always in full bloom when we write about what we know—but moreso when we write about what we are discovering . . . and what our readers can discover as well.
After all, J.K. Rowling had (I presume) little first-hand experience with wizards, sorcery, or dark lords before penning Harry Potter. Yet, her passion for the characteristic hero and all his supernatural challenges shines through magnificently.
Write what you know. NO!
A retired professor of education and resident of York, PA, Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books. He has also authored the book Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2XFsbbs). [“This book tells the truth about being an author of children’s books.” —5-star review]