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?

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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.

A Writer Needs A Mother

I’ve often thought that writing is like the paper route I worked for three years as a kid. If you want to write, get up early every day, in all weather, no matter how little sleep you got the night before – whether you partied until 2:17 AM or tucked yourself in quietly with a book at 8:35 PM. Go to work. Write. Stay in your seat. Work for an hour or two, then move on to the rest of your day. This has worked for thousands of writers before you and it will work for you as well.

In interviews and essays I’ve talked about work ethic. Writing is not about talent but daily practice – Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird ideas – that writers need to write every day, to accept the fact that our first drafts will be terrible, that we must revise and edit repeatedly until we have created something of true artistic value. Writing is not complicated. It’s about personal integrity and commitment, daily meditation, meeting personal goals and standards.

All of that is true. Sort of. But a writer needs influences. A writer needs that person around him who values writing, who encourages writing, who makes a young writer into a better writer by challenging him to push further, to never settle, to do one more round of revisions.

A writer needs a mother. Not a literal mother – it could be a teacher, another writer, an inspiring friend, a fellow artist, an uncle, an aunt, or a father – but a writer needs a mother of some sort. So this essay is about a mother. In this case, my real mother.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Reads Books Aloud:

My mother read the Bible aloud to us. She read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Where The Red Fern Grows, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, Agatha Christie mysteries, and The Child’s History of the World.

She read aloud to us while she drove 80 miles per hour on road trips across the Southwest. She read in a different voice for each character. She read with one hand on the book, three fingers on the steering wheel, and a Pepsi pinched between her index finger and thumb.

Because she couldn’t put books down, because I saw her sneaking away to finish her latest Dorothy Sayers novel, because she wouldn’t go swimming until she’d finished a chapter, I always wanted her to read to me. When she read, I was enraptured. I didn’t talk. I stifled any coughs. I told other people to be quiet. To be read to by my mother was to enter a European cathedral and stare up at the improbable miracles of stone and stained glass.

A writer must hear the written word. There should be a recognition of sound as the words go down on the paper. Fingers should elicit syllables. But this is only possible if someone has read to the writer, if the voices of the spoken word are in the writer’s head. And it’s not too late. If no one ever read to you when you were young, or if no one reads to you now, go to readings at local bookstores. Listen to poets at the library. Listen to MFA students who need audiences for their thesis projects. Ask your husband or friend or colleague to read a passage to you.

If you’re hard up for a reader, watch the movie “A River Runs Through It.” In that movie, Robert Redford commits to passages from the original text by Norman Maclean, and the writing is beautiful.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Creation:

I grew up in an artist’s home. My mother drew with charcoal, pencils, and pastels. She painted with acrylics and oil. Experimented with mixed media. Sculpted with clay, chickenwire, and papier-mache. My brothers and sisters and I collected animal skeletons from the desert around our home in Tucson for my mother’s bone mobiles. If an animal we brought home was too fresh, my mother would boil the carcass in bleach, making the smell of warm bleach a smell I still associate – thirty years later – with bones and bright copper wire.

Living out in the desert, my mother home-schooled us, and we studied art history, literary history, and myths. She had all of us choose a favorite artist, get to know that artist’s work, and begin to create art ourselves. We drew and painted. We sculpted. We made collages.

Although I’ve heard some people argue that writing is not really art, that it is part science, part business, or part theatrics, I disagree with that core argument. Writing fiction, poetry, short narratives, or memoir takes incredible imagination. Writing is, at its core, art. Works cannot be repeated, and that dynamic requirement demands creativity. Imagism and evocation are products of the creative mind, so valuing creation of new and engaging mediums is paramount to any writer.

If you didn’t have a big creative influence when you were young, surround yourself with creative people now. But the key is to be around creative people who actually practice art, who produce, who struggle and fail and succeed with real works of art. Find those people and learn from each other, or at least commiserate.

 

A Writer Needs Someone To Say, “Go Write”:

I dropped out of college after my sophomore year to write. I’d taken two creative writing classes and I wanted to simplify my life and focus on writing. I had a part-time job as a supervisor at a drug store, and that job generated enough income to cover rent, utilities, and food bills. So I thought I’d write and work, nothing else. But I quickly got into the habit of working and adventuring, rock climbing and hiking and mountain biking when I wasn’t at the drugstore. I wrote very little. Then not at all. Months went by without me writing a single story.

My mother called me out. We were at a Christmas party and she came up to me and reminded me why I’d dropped out of school. She said, “You said that you were going to write every day.”

“Right,” I said, “Oh yeah.”

She smiled and looked me directly in the eyes. “You said you were going to be a writer.”

“Right,” I said. “I should do that.”

She pointed out my lack of focus, how I had failed to stick to the plan I’d laid out, and I’m grateful for her doing that. I never forgot that moment.

This is an important truth:

A writer isn’t someone who talks about writing or plans to do a writing project. A writer isn’t someone who wears tweeds and a scarf, someone who thinks about lyrical poetry while smoking long-leaf Tobacco from an antique pipe. A writer is someone who writes every day. That’s what a writer is. Published or not.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Teaches About Words:

Home-schooled for seven years at the school my mother called Hoffmeister Country Day School, or HCD for short, we studied the Calvert Day School’s traditional curriculum that we ordered by mail from Baltimore, Maryland. Calvert was founded in 1897 by a Harvard scholar who intended to teach the classics. My mother chose Calvert because of its focus on language, on reading and writing. We read, spelled, wrote, and studied words every day. We learned Latin and French, studied vocabulary, roots, prefixes and suffixes. We poured over our dictionaries, noting Greek word origins and highlighting etymologies.

I wasn’t the most serious student in my family (my older sisters studied and learned far more than me), but my background with words still helps me to this day. I have linguistic aptitude because of that word work. I am capable of using a thesaurus without being intimidated, and I feel intimate with my dictionary who I’ve named Big Honey.

A writer must love words, study words, think about sounds and meanings, care about origins and connotations. If that wasn’t part of your educational background, it’s never too late. Get an unabridged dictionary and go to work. Memorize definitions. Highlight roots. Learn synonyms and antonyms. If you get to know two new words each week (everything about those words), that’s more than 100 words per year. Over ten years, that’s more than 1000.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Individuality:

My mother let me sleep outside, swim in the river by myself, wear a beret for all of fourth grade, make up my own language, sleep on my floor in my clothes like a Spartan, and catch poisonous spider to keep in jars in my room. Maybe my mother wasn’t being wise or discerning, or maybe she understood that I needed to be my own person. No one else in my family was like me, but my mother didn’t try to make each of us like the other. She championed differences between individuals.

In the publishing world, a writer who is like every other current bestseller is not a great writer. If it’s difficult to tell the difference between two thriller writers, they’re not going to be read in 50 years. If you want to write something of permanent value (not that most of us have yet, but we hope to), then you have to be an individual. Think about science history, and consider Galileo in particular. There were thousands of scientists who didn’t believe in Galileo’s theories, and what were those guys’ names? Who were the accepted great scientists of his day? If “The Earth Is The Center Of The Universe” guys were writing right now, they’d be writing the new vampire book or The More Hungry Games. But we have to leave cheap imitation to boy bands and NFL touchdown celebrations.

Write something new. Write from you.

 

Could You Be The Mother For Someone Else?

Finally, if you value great writing, you might want to consider a harsh possibility: Maybe you aren’t an incredible writer. Maybe you don’t have it in you. Maybe you’ve put in the work, every day for ten years, and none of your books are going to be the next great American novel. Maybe draft ten is similar to draft two, at least in terms of excellence. I’m not saying to give up, but consider the possibility of influence. What if your passion for writing could be passed on to someone else? What if all of your knowledge and experience is meant to help someone else become great? Think of all the wonderful writers whom you admire. They were all influenced by others, raised by mothers (real or metaphorical) who valued the written word, who encouraged them to produce great art.

Maybe you are someone else’s mother. Maybe you can teach and encourage. Maybe you can help that younger writer to get her first poem published, or place an essay in a magazine. Or maybe you can teach process, structure, or narrative arc. Maybe you understand character development even if your own fictional characters aren’t that original.

I teach a high school creative writing class each year, and I require my young writers to submit two pieces of writing to literary journals. When a few are accepted each year, it’s a wonderful moment. It feels like a victory for the entire class. And who knows? Maybe that first publication is the start of something great. Maybe one of my students will far outshine my literary star (or, more accurately, my literary barrel of burning crude oil). My passion for writing and understanding of craft might not be important for me. Maybe I’m meant to help someone else. And maybe you are too.

For Writing Advice? Terrible Minds

Never a bad idea to go to Chuck Wendig. A clip from his new post on writing resolutions 2014:

I Will Give My Work The Time It Needs:

Sometimes a story comes out fast. Sometimes it comes out slow. And this isn’t just about a single story: learning to do this thing and do it well may not take the arbitrary 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell suggests, but it’s not learning to play beer pong, either. Overnight successes never are; what you see is just the iceberg’s peak poking out of the slush. This takes time. From ideation to action. From writing one junk novel to a worse novel to a better one to the ninth one that’s actually worth a good goddamn. From writing to rewriting to editing to copyediting. Don’t “just click publish.” Don’t just send it off half-baked to some editor or agent — they get hundreds of stories a day that are the narrative equivalent to a sloppy equine miscarriage or half-eaten ham salad sandwich. Don’t punish your potential readers by squatting over the Amazon toilet and voiding your creative bowels into the digital porcelain. Take pride in what you do. Go the distance and get shit done. Not just a little bit done, but all-the-way-to-the-awesome-end done.”

For the full post, click here (Note: strong language but excellent advice from an experienced author).

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.

Let Them Be Eaten By Bears Chosen For Mother’s Day By Parents Magazine and Penguin Books

In the June issue of Parents Magazine, Let Them Be Eaten By Bears was chosen as the “Mom Must-Read” book of the month.
The shortened version of the book review reads:

“[Hoffmeister] makes it sound so fun!  His relatable writing and first-person stories will convince you to hop in puddles, gaze at clouds, and share the wonders of nature with your children.”  – Parents Magazine

Also, Penguin Group chose Bears as a Mother’s Day Gift Shop Selection.