What You Know

It’s an adage spouted at us so often that it has almost lost its meaning in the repetition: “write what you know.” Draw from your own life experiences in order to lend heightened realism to your work. I have mixed feelings about this, especially as a young writer – primarily because I feel like in the context of the adage, I just don’t “know” all that much. Does it mean I’m a bad writer because I don’t have a lifetime of experience to apply to my work? I like to think that it doesn’t.

I have never been anything more than a student. I lived in the same house in a rural area for my entire life, until I moved into my college dorm. I’ve spent less than a month of my life in cities, and that’s if you accumulate all the hours and days together. I’ve never been in a long-term romantic relationship.

And yet, some of my characters have lived in the city, have dated people for a year or more, and have careers. How is it possible that I only used what I know and still managed to create characters with lives so different from my own? Obviously, the answer lies partly with imagination and partly with research, but it also lies with my personal writing philosophy. I believe that some aspects of life translate across multiple experiences of the world.

What do I mean by that? I mean that “knowledge” isn’t the sum of my limited experiences. I may not have relationship experience, but I have long-lasting friendships with aspects that could be linked to romantic relationships, in the effort and the ups and downs. I also have friends who deal with relationship problems all the time and share them with me.

The emotional states that are tied to their problems and to my own transcend the specific details of the issue at hand. As a writer, then, I can use the root emotions to convey something that I may not personally have experienced in a manner that is still realistic.

Using what you know isn’t just about using your own experiences. If it was, everything we read would be autobiographical. Rather, it’s using your experiences as a starting point – as a seed that you allow to germinate into something beyond yourself.

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A Thousand Words

So you’ve finally found the time to write, you have your pen in hand, a big cup of coffee in front of you, and… a blank notebook page that seems determined to remain blank.

Last night, when you were exceedingly busy and had no chance to jot them down, it felt like you had a hundred fantastic ideas flitting around in your distracted mind, and now they’re nowhere to be found. But all is not lost! You go to the internet, your trusty Pinterest account, and search for “writing prompts.” Maybe that will help to kick start your creative process.

Or not.

The internet is brimming with awful prompts intended to “help” writers, but often they are either too specific or too bizarre. You’re being force fed a plot point or a line of dialogue, and while you may be able to spawn a few paragraphs with that, it’s hardly the foundation for an entire story.

Occasionally, there will be a list of prompts with a few gems hidden among the rubbish, or a strange idea that really gets you going, but how do you sort through the piles of useless prompts to find the good ones?

In general, I don’t. Sure, I follow the tag on Pinterest so that if someone does happen to come up with a good one, I can pin it to my “Writing” board and use it later when I’m looking for some inspiration, but I don’t go seeking them out.

Instead, I use pictures. We’ve all probably heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

I search photography. I look for interesting portraits or settings for which I can imagine the backstories. I find a painting of someone standing by a lake, or a girl who looks lost, and I can’t help but try to find those 1000 words trapped in the brushstrokes.

"Twinkle of Passion" is only one of many paintings by Leonid Afremov which has served to inspire me lately.
“Twinkle of Passion” is only one of many paintings by Leonid Afremov which has served to inspire me lately.

Sometimes, when I already have a project, I allow the words to skitter across my mind and escape, lost again until someone else goes searching for them. Other times, especially when I’m facing the dreaded plague of writer’s block, I capture them. I pull them down from my brain to my hand, funnel them through my pen, and give them linguistic permanence on the page.

Art is my constant writing prompt. Use it to find a new character, a city street, or a quiet place in the woods for meditation. There is so much of it out there, and it’s up to you to find the prompt among the pixels.

The words are there. You just have to learn how to find them.

Breaking Ground

An imperfect start can always be improved.
~James Clear

I often get stuck as a writer. My work is uninteresting, unoriginal, or just plain bad, and professors who constantly ink the word “cliché” in the margins of my work aren’t helping. Even sitting down to write this post, I rewrote my first paragraph five times trying to decide what the first words I shared on this page should be.

I decided on the words above because they convey a cliché that sometimes, people still need to hear: “You are not alone.”

No one in this field knows exactly what they are doing. No one comes up with the perfect story the first time around. No poem falls onto the page as it is published. Some writers may have you believe that it is that easy, but they are either lying or incredibly blessed. Some days, I stare at a blank page in my notebook, or the blinking cursor on my laptop screen, and nothing happens. Other days, my hand cramps and I misspell words attempting to keep up with the rapid thoughts bursting forth.

The biggest difference between these two types of days is where my focus comes from. At times, I allow my own love of the craft to drive me, and abandon my worries about others’ judgment of my work. These are my most productive days. On days when I compare my work to other writers and attempt to write something based on how it will come across, I find myself crippled by my concerns.

The thing to keep in mind when you find yourself feeling that nothing you write will be good enough is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Your work is only a draft, and the only person who has to see it – the only person who is going to judge it – is you.

So, to leave you with another cliché, don’t be too hard on yourself. Allow your imagination to do what it wants, and tell the part of yourself that doesn’t think you’re good enough that it doesn’t matter.