Write What You Don’t Know.

Teachers and professors tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And there’s a certain truth to that idea. If I try to write about a cricket match, but I don’t know anything about the game, have never played it, have never watched it, don’t know the rules, and am not sure I can name 5 countries where the sport is played, I’m not going to write an excellent scene that includes the sport.

In the same way, being a high school teacher and having a teenager myself, I recognize when “young adult” authors clearly don’t know much about teenagers and are too far removed from the personal experience to do the subject justice. Their “teenagers” – for example – never swear or only think & act in culturally competent ways.

So writing what you know is a good piece of advice. Or maybe it’s not…

Recently, an editor told me that I couldn’t have a Latino narrator in one of my stories because I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That’s a strange thing to say in any context, but especially odd since my grandmother is Mexican and I do speak and read Spanish. But apparently – in that editor’s eyes – this piece of fiction was an example of me trying to write what I didn’t know.

I recognize that politically correct mores have permeated everything in our culture – and I’m sure that this particular editor is simply a politically correct conservative – but her command (her imperative?) made me think of the idea on a larger scale.

Should Margaret Atwood not have written the science fiction novel within The Blind Assassin?

Should Cormac McCarthy not have written John Grady’s Mexican prison scenes simply because McCarthy had never been incarcerated?

Should Toni Morrison not have any Caucasian characters or narrators in any of her novels or stories?

Again, I could go on and on.

And where would this idea stop? What would be its limit? Why would we allow for this type of censorship of creative possibilities?

So – to keep this piece short – I’d say that instead of the old “write what you know” adage, I’d say it’s fine (and good) to write what you don’t know as long as you’re willing to learn about it.

With encyclopedias, empathy, books, neighbors, friends, coffee shops, Youtube, relatives, films, traveling, and curiosity as basic starting points, what can we not learn? What can we not write about?

An Agent Tells About Submitting Her Authors’ Manuscripts To Editors

betsy-lerner

Agent Betsy Lerner (author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice To Writers) tells what it’s like to submit manuscripts to editors:

“I learned that for every project you sold, you still received about ten rejections, sometimes more. I learned that some editors never responded at all. My agent group nicknamed one the Bermuda Triangle; everything you sent to her disappeared forever. Some editors had their assistants read the manuscripts and/or write the rejections, which had the whiff of college term papers. It was bad getting rejected; it was worse getting rejected by some Williamsburg hipsters who vape.”

Perfect.

Full article here.

Rejection Letter TO An MFA Program

Four years ago, I was accepted by the University of Montana’s MFA fiction program. My wife and I liked Missoula, the campus, the outdoor possibilities, the family housing, and the writing faculty. The fiction/nonfiction program at Montana had a long, respected tradition. The whole situation was perfect for us.

But, inexplicably, the directors didn’t offer me a TA or GTF position when I was accepted. At first they said that I could teach intro to composition classes, then they changed their minds. This was strange to me because my teaching experience at that time – 8 years – was much more significant than my writing experience. I had very few publications but my teaching credentials were excellent. Yet they didn’t offer me a chance to teach, and thus I didn’t have enough money to attend. We spoke multiple times on the phone, and they encouraged me to join the program even without a graduate teaching position. They wanted me to work with them. They said it would all work out. And maybe it would have.

But I thought that working a low-wage job off campus, with no health insurance, wasn’t going to suffice, considering that I was married and had a small child, so I had to decline my offer of acceptance. The following is my rejection letter to the faculty of the University of Montana MFA program – cut and pasted from my email. Warning: I might not have been very mature back then.

Subject: My Decision

Dear Faculty:

Weeks ago, I decided that I would attend Montana or no MFA
program at all.  Unlike other top schools, I’ve heard only good
things about Montana.  Nothing about it being overly competitive, too
large, too small, too incestuous.  You, the faculty, are
spoken well of by current and former students.  Workshops are productive
and writers get published.  People leave your program
feeling that they were part of a community for two years, that they did
not go into that room alone.
And so I am sad to turn you down.  I appreciate your acceptance,
your kind words, and the encouragement you have given
me.  I still respect you deeply.  I wish I could have studied fiction
and nonfiction with you.  “My poverty, but not my will,
consents.”  Shakespeare and I spoke recently about food stamps and the
WIC program.  Our whole conversation was in iambic pentameter.
Life is good. I sent my memoir to New York last week, one of my
articles was purchased by Canada’s top climbing
magazine, and my three-year-old learned to spell her name.  So life is
good.  And I will keep writing.
If you get down your TA list that is NOT based on teaching
ability (I have impeccable teaching references), financial need
(my family received public assistance), or scholastic performance (I
earned a 4.0 during my first Master’s), then you are welcome
to contact me.  I will be writing in my kitchen, in the mornings, before
work.
Sincerely,
Peter Brown Hoffmeister.

Best Books On Writing

The writing process can be incredibly simple:

Write more and you’ll write better.

Read high quality writing and you’ll write better.

Read well AND write a lot, and you’ll be even better still.

But a few writers, editors, and agents have written excellent books on the process, the craft, style, structure, and motivation. Going into the new year, many writers are looking for texts that will help improve their writing, help them get a first story published or finish revising that novel. The following five books are some of the best texts I’ve read for specific writing instruction:

1. Stein On Writing – By Sol Stein

Stein explains, “This is not a book of theory. It is a book of usable solutions–how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.”

2. The Forest For The Trees – By Betsy Lerner

Another book written by an experienced editor. This book was incredibly helpful leading up to the sale of my first book. Lerner guides an aspiring author through the entire process.

3. On Writing – By Stephen King

A lot of literary writers are snobs about Stephen King, but I don’t understand that attitude. King has put in the work, understands plot better than most writers ever born, loves his readers, and markets incredibly well too. This book is half memoir and half how-to, the second half of the book working as a nuts-and-bolts guide. If you read On Writing, it will be useful.

4. 3 Minutes Or Less: Life Lessons From America’s Greatest Writers

An anthology of short essays by America’s literary greats on topics like “obsession,” “illusion,” “first love,” and “beginnings.” Any writer, published or unpublished, will get something out of this collection.

5. Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life – Anne Lamott

No “how to write” list is complete without Lamott’s best book. She is brave, honest, truthful, harsh, and funny. I kept quotes from Bird By Bird above my writing desk while struggling through my first failed novel. Lamott kept me going.

Ursula K. Le Guin Rejection Letter

This is encouraging for any emerging or struggling writer. Editors for big houses in New York are only human beings, and their opinions are not always correct. Thank you, Ms. Le Guin.

Rejection letter from 1968 for The Left Hand of Darkness.

Also, note that it was kind of Le Guin to leave off his name. At this point in her career, she could do whatever she wants.  And I understand the desire to include the name.