Write What You Know — Oh, ya, that old adage

Don’t be fraudulent — write what you know.

How many times have I heard/read that statement, how many times has it been written, how many times repeated? And the writer, the reader, the sayer… have they understood what it meant?

Have they taken it literally, like this author?1 Or, like me? I took it literally, write what you know, then tossed it out as nonsense, gibberish. That writer’s rule left a very narrow scope for any author to explore, and rendered most work, good or bad, classic or newly written, invalid.William Shakespeare: attribute, Élisée Reclus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Shelley never built a living monster; William Shakespeare was not an ancient Roman, or a Scottish king, for example. Yet we treasure their work, re-read their words with reverence and admiration.

What I Learned

Gradually — and I do mean gradually :) — I figured out that the phrase write what you know, was talking about experience, and implied that my experience was transferable, my emotions expandable, and both, when called upon, would add the depth and colour required — absolutely required — to whatever your, and my imagination could conjure up.

‘What If’ grew wings, breathed and laughed and cried, shouted or whispered, just as I imagined, infused with whatever I could pull from my own life, loves, experiences. I wrote what I knew.

Passion, writing from the heart; another way to ‘write what you know’, really know, because if my words are truly passionate, they are not ‘fraudulent’, they are what I am.

How to execute?

All kinds of easy, to talk about writing what you know, but can you? How do you disconnect from all the should-/would-/could-haves that govern our lives as we navigate the real world?

‘What If’ becomes … what if — what if your characters, their fears, loves, hatred, true confessions — all fiction, you see, part of the plot — are so passionate, so ‘knowing’ that people recognize you or themselves?

“All very well,” the critic writes, “the story is 1,000 years before or after today, but we still know it’s you!”

That’s where the ‘bleed’ comes in. Only you can decide how much, when, where, to “open your veins and bleed”, as Red Smith described, in 1949.

(Metaphorically, or course. I don’t think that he actually… you don’t believe he really… naw.)

And then there’s the edit. Think of the edit as first, some soapy water and a cloth, followed by a good daubing of disinfectant to the wound; but not so much that you’ve turned the wound into plastic surgery. The scars must remain, for all their truth and ugliness, or pain, or joy, for everyone to see.

Yes, But How?

Here’s what I found out about my own writing.

Recently I switched to pen and paper2. I re-discovered that it opened up a slower world, pushed me back into my imaginary world, challenged my brain to ‘act’ out each scene, conversation, event, as I wrote.

It became a ‘stream of conscious’, which leant itself to the simplicity of pen on paper — no distractions — no crutches such as spell checkers, or Google, the complete abondonment of all the grammar, paragraphing, titles, the stuff we read in the finished work.

Just me and my story; words gushing, the ink capturing my heart as the scenes bleed themselves from my brain to the page. I found a ‘zone’, that rhythm I wrote about in another blog, a place where time, space, noise, the demands and obligations of every-day life drop away.

In those first words, my writing becomes the scene, the story, the ‘what I know’ that opens out and spills across that little paper notebook, all my heart, everything I am at the tip of a nib.

  1. Thank you for your inspiration, your story of the elderly writing teacher whose legacy is passed on once again.
  2. I originally wrote with pen/paper, then a typewriter, then a borrowed computer — remember the Commodore Amiga?

My Review of the Seven Seas Writer Journal

Time for a review of the A5 Seven Seas Writer, a new journal with 480 pages of Japanese Tomoe River notebook paper, lightly lined off-white paper, 52gsm, which is very thin and smooth, a dream to write on.

Keeping a Journal

I’ve been keeping a journal1 for many years via both pen and paper, and several digital formats, using apps that mark each day and apps that allow digital stylus-like handwriting. Pen and paper is what works for me.

I find the imposed slowing down of handwriting meditative, satisfying, and a challenge to carefully think and re-think while writing, finding the right words for what I want to say.

A Variety of pens…

I’ve tried ball point and gel pens, pencils, and lately a return to fountain pens and ink, which are infinitely more comfortable — they require minimal pressure, easing potential writer’s cramp for those of us who write a lot. Ball points and pencils require pressure and a tight grip to make their marks on your page.

7 Seas WriterThe review…

All of which brought me to consider paper, its quality, finish, format. I’ve used Gibson Markings® for a long time with excellent results, but last week I ordered and received a journalling notebook called the Seven Seas Writer. For simplicity, I will outline my experiences:

  • the Seven Seas Writer journal lays completely flat
  • paper is very smooth with pale grey lines that recede from view once written over
  • extra fine nibs (my preferences) glide smoothly without grab or skipping
  • inks I use are Lamy black, Noodler’s Ink Liberty’s Elysium (blue) and Apache Sunset (orange-red), and Diamine Umber (green)
  • there is no feathering or bleed through, in spite of the light 52 g paper weight
  • some shadowing, but this does not interfere with legibility when writing on the overleaf
  • the paper takes pre-printed, pasted images2 without any noticeable compromise of a single page’s drape or weight
  • inks that I use for writing (see above) dry quickly. By the time I reach the bottom of a page, a light blot with the supplied pink blotting paper or a paper towel is all that is needed if you are writing quickly
  • the Tomoe River paper allows highlighting and lined rules without bleed through3
  • coloured pencils: I frequently doodle with pencil crayons, using the sketches as a sort of coloured whitespace, then I write over them — this works perfectly, with true colours

My final assessment

I will definitely be using the Seven Seas Writer as my daily journal. I highly recommend this notebook if you write regularly and are looking for a straightforward journal.

My disclosure: I’m not affiliated with, nor have I received samples or courtesy products from nanamipaper.com or associates, or any other company’s product mentioned here. I have not been remunerated for my review; I am writing from my own experience.

  1. some might call it a CommonPlace Book, popularized prior to the 17th century
  2. For example, photos, book covers, or unique graphics. I print on standard weight ink jet paper and use simple glue-stick such as Craftbond ® Elmer’s Repositionable
  3. note that non-waterproof inks will still smear under highlighting, or feather if you try to write over them

What I’ve Learned About Writing

Some quick thoughts on writing

I have been overwhelmed and thus waylaid by all the how-to’s, articles, rules to be learned and used when writing. Great canon and reference, but none of it is carved in stone, especially during your first draft. Of all the articles, books, and rules, your first job is to have faith in yourself and write with whatever system and format works for you.

Writing Journal and penThe main overview of writing, when I step back and think about all the books, articles or blogs I’ve studied, is that all the rules and directives that are right, are wrong.

One author’s methods simply won’t work for the next author.

You can do any, all, or none of the below…

You don’t have to plot, write linear, edit as you go, write a first draft quickly, work from theme, work without a plot or outline, use specific software/applications, keep index cards, keep separate files for each chapter, keep a large single file, write longhand, use an iPad, write perfect grammar and spelling, keep charts and time lines, and so on.

What you should do…

What you have to do is find your rhythm; in other words, find what works for you — use whatever methods allow you to discover character, plot, word flow, pacing, theme and so on.

Reading how others write is helpful. Learning the trade, knowing proper grammar, spelling, syntax, metaphors, ‘free indirect discourse‘, for example, are useful and essential tools, but don’t let these, or someone’s ‘system‘ get in your way. Just write.

If you think best with pen and paper, or at the library, or using dedicated software, then this is your write/right way.

My advice…

What I do suggest is to write often and make backups. Know when to walk away, take breaks, stretch, exercise, socialize, give your subconscious (a.k.a. your muse) a chance to work your story along with you.

Above all, have faith in yourself. You have good valid ideas and a lot to say; the words will come.

For another author’s take on writing…

‘…When you catch a ball, your brain is carrying out thousands of mathematical calculations, tracking the speed, acceleration, direction of the projectile. An entire branch of mechanics, ballistics, is devoted to working out the stuff your mind does automatically. You’re just evolved to not need to do the sums. That’s how I write….’

[ — Thomas Heasman-Hunt.  Source: http://theserialwritist.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/the-serial-writist/ ]

or have a look at Charles Dickens’ manuscript of ‘A Christmas Carol‘, written…

‘…during a period of intense creativity in fall 1843, completing the work in a mere six weeks. He appears to have made no working notes, outline, plans, or preliminary drafts, leaving only the sixty-eight-page manuscript now in the Morgan [Library & Museum]‘s collection….’

[ — source: http://www.themorgan.org/collections/works/dickens/default ]