The problem with clichés is that we don’t take the time to unpack the nugget of wisdom that led to these phrases becoming clichéd in the first place. We just rattle them off as if everyone knows what we’re trying to say.
- Early to bed and early to rise. (We often forget to include the next part, that doing so “makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”)
- Actions speak louder than words. (Because no matter how much you talk about doing something — *cough*writing*cough* — it never gets done until you actually sit down and, well, do it.)
- You can’t judge a book by it’s cover. (Well, you can, and probably learn a lot about whether or not it’s a book you wold enjoy. But that’s far from the whole story.)
- What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (This one is mostly just a trigger to have that blasted song running through your head all day.)
- The grass is always greener on the other side. (Studies have shown that we really are happiest when we choose to be content with what we have.)
- You can’t please everyone. (The corollary being that you should be motivated to do what makes you happy instead of what you think will get someone else to like you.)
Write What You Know is another one of those that’s been tossed around without consideration for what it means. But the wisdom inherent to it remains evergreen even now.
First, let’s talk about what this means: Write What You Know. Just the words themselves.
Write: Put down words in a string that conveys meaning. Compose sentences that interconnect to deliver an idea to the reader.
What: The focus, direction, subject, and so on of said sentences.
You: Not someone else. Not like someone else. Not in a way that feels like someone else but is actually you in disguise. But as yourself, with your own, unique method, style, and perspective.
Know: The stuff that’s already inside your head.
Already, we’re pulling out all kinds of goodies from this four-word phrase. Any one of these could hold the answer to “What’s the holdup?” when it comes to your writing. Whether it’s a lack of technical proficiency (write), an aimlessness of purpose (what), or a lack of confidence and accountability (you).
But I want to focus on the last one, because it’s the one I’ve always struggled with the most.
Just what is it that I know?
I don’t consider myself a remarkable person when it comes to life experiences. I grew up in a middle-income suburban home, with two parents, in the middle of America (literally, grab a map and point to the middle, you won’t be far off). As a child, I went to church on Sundays, watched Saturday morning cartoons almost every week, and played a handful of street sports with neighborhood friends. I finished high school on time, went to college, then moved back to my hometown, where I bought a house and now live and work a day job to pay down the debts that I don’t think about.
I am, as far as I can tell, an average American.
For the first decade of my life, I considered my experience to be universal. Surely this is how everyone lives.
In more recent years I’ve learned that there’s a wide spectrum of upbringings that people come through, most of them more interesting than mine. I assumed that my experiences were at least the statistical average, and thus not much worth writing about.
I mean, middle-class in the middle of America. How much more milquetoast can you get? Leonardo DiCaprio did an entire movie on the monotony of suburbia, and he’s not the only one.
As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have a lot to say because I didn’t know anything unique when compared to other people.
But that was the wrong attitude to have, for two reasons.
Commonalities with other people are not a bad thing. So often we are enamored by the strange or exotic and drawn to the new and shiny.
“It’s called a novel for a reason,” we quip. “It better have something new in it.”
We all laugh and nod sagaciously as though we would never stoop so low as to read something so base and banal that it didn’t contain forests of novelty.
It’s the same attitude we have toward formulaic plots and obvious tropes and overused clichés. “Oh, no, not this again. Please, give me something new!”
But let me ask you something.
Do you ever re-read a book? Maybe not now, if you’ve become so busy that you barely have a moment of stillness to sit down and read in the first place, much less read something you’ve already finished. But in the past, maybe. When you were younger and time seemed endless.
I know I have. There are still books I’d love to go back to now, just to see if I missed something the first (or second, or third, or…) time. Or just to live in that world again and soak in the characters.
I re-watch movies all the time. Listen to music over and over. Occasionally fire up a video game I’ve already beaten, just to feel that surge of triumph and empowerment.
Hell, board games are basically counting on you to play them over and over again, and we don’t get bored (hah) of having to set up the chess pieces in the same place every time, do we?
Familiarity is comfortable. And a thoughtful consideration of what we have in common is an aspect of writing and storytelling and living that I have long undervalued.
Might be you’re undervaluing it too.
You’d be surprised how often talking about something that seems obvious to you will resonate with others.
I glossed over a few key details in my abridged biography above.
Let me fix that.
I don’t consider myself a remarkable person when it comes to life experiences, but I scored very high on standardized tests and developed a bit of a superiority complex as a result.
I grew up in a middle-income suburban home that emphasized fiscal responsibility, giving me a baseline from which to handle money that none of my peers had, with two parents who both worked, in the middle of America (
literally, grab a map and point to the middle, you won’t be far offSt. Louis to be exact, which has a rich cultural history as the Gateway to the West).
As a child, I went to church on Sundays where my father worked, watched Saturday morning cartoons almost every week but was busy with activities in dance or art or choir or orchestra or theater or soccer or church almost every other night of the week, and played a handful of street sports with neighborhood friends.
I finished high school on time, which is pretty easy when you’re homeschooled, went to college and studied abroad in London, then moved back to my hometown (though only after making some significantly poor life choices), where I bought a house before quitting the job that helped me buy it and now live and work a day job to pay down the debts that I don’t think about, despite the financial education I received as a child.
If you were to look at my life in any given year of my personal history, I have no doubt that you would find a dozen or more rich sources of material to write about. Details and experiences and choices that set me apart from the other “average” Americans that I had lumped myself in with.
But I had constructed a narrative for myself that prevented me from seeing those things.
To me, it was all the same as the kid next door or the writers in my textbooks. I didn’t see myself as unique, because I was connecting with what I saw that was familiar.
Granted, as I mentioned above, that’s the point of using the familiar. So well done, bravo, it’s doing its job.
But that attitude crippled me creatively for years. I remember saying in a class once that the reason I wrote fantasy was because I felt I didn’t have any impressive life experiences to talk about. That my life wasn’t worth writing about.
And when you feel that way about your life, it kind of hinders you from living it to its fullest.
Somewhere along the way, this realization clicked in my head, and I started to see all the experiences I have that are unique to me. I don’t yet know how — or if at all — I’ll use all of them, but at least now I know they’re there. In big, bolded letters.
But here’s the thing I want you to take away from this: We all have these experiences, choices, and details in our lives that make us stand out from the crowd, just as we all have some shared background that makes us a part of that crowd in the first place. It’s a wonderful, glorious, beautiful both/and situation that is inherent to human existence.
So don’t discount yourself. Don’t discount your experiences.
You’d be surprised how often talking about something that seems obvious to you will be brand new information to others.
Exotic is just a word we use to mean different. Other. Strange. Foreign. And you never know what someone will consider exotic to them.
Here in America, we often associate the word with spices, jungles, and any culture from the other side of the Pacific from us. And that’s incredibly egotistical.
But the counter to that is that maybe people overseas consider red brick school houses, windswept prairies, and muddy rivers to be exotic. So feel free to write about the most mundane things that come into your mind. With the write attitude and persistence toward your work, you may find a perspective that is unique even to you.
And if you do write something more familiar, that’s okay to. We can all use a bit more comfort in the world.
Here’s one last cliché for you:
“There is nothing new under the sun.”
We are so often too enamored with novelty, and too focused on trying to be “original” with our work.
The original thing is you. Your thoughts. Your experiences. Your outlook on the world. Even if there are commonalities between you and me, it’s impossible that we will compose the same thing.
Even if we did, that’s called plagiarism. So one of us is lying. 🙂
Today’s prompt was a challenge to work with, and I’m glad. My initial impression is that this is my best work yet in this series.
I reserve the right to do that.
For those curious, the inspiration for this comes in that ever-common phrase: Write What You Know. I should have expected that it would come up during this challenge, but somehow I was still surprised when I opened the email this morning.
(When you’re giving advice to newer writers, it inevitably comes up, though I’ve never considered it in the context of establishing a writing habit before.)
At first I was a little dismayed. A kind of “What am I supposed to do with that?” feeling crept into me.
So I took that as a challenge.
What am I supposed to do with that? How can I make “Write What You Know” new and interesting again? What spin can I put on it that I haven’t seen done before?
And, underneath all those questions, have I really, actually, truly considered this question before, or do I just let it roll through my head without it leaving an impression?
That was more than enough to get me to…well beyond the 500 words I’m committed to. Again.
I hope you found something useful in all of it.