One Writer’s Writing Secret 10: Write what you know, sort of.

            My Dad used to tell this story about a frumpy, old woman that came into his office one day.  He was editor of “Railway Age Magazine” at the time and the woman apparently had some railroad questions.  Now, he was a kind soul, but he had work to do so he said he would be with her in a while if she cared to wait.  She did not mind.

            Dad described the woman as five-foot nothing, rather round, not anything to look at, and she wore a crumpled dress and an apron that made her look like what he called a “Woolworth’s Lady.”  He watched her for a while.  She sat quietly, occasionally scribbling a note or two in a little notebook, but otherwise she appeared to be a happy wallflower.

            At last, he made the time and invited her into his office.  She was grateful and as she waddled in and sat, he noticed the small suitcase for the first time and wondered if she needed a few dollars.  The woman pulled out her notebook and began to ask her questions.  Dad answered as well as he could, pointing out one historical point where she was mistaken.  That was when she looked terribly frustrated and shook her head in despair.

            “What is it?’  Dad asked, kind soul that he was.

            “Well, I was wondering if you would read my manuscript.  I am afraid I may have made terrible mistakes and I really want to get it right.”

            Dad was an editor, you know.  He said later that he imagined the manuscript was some historical article on railroads, and while his magazine did not publish those sorts of things, he said, “Sure.”

            That was when the woman opened her suitcase and pulled out a massive number of pages which she plunked, ker-thump on Dad’s desk.  “Thank you.”  She said.  “I will be forever grateful.  Should I call back in a month?”  Dad could only nod, grimly while the woman left.

            The woman was not known at that time.  She became very well known.  It was Ayn Rand, and the “little” manuscript was Atlas Shrugged.  I say she became very well known, but I doubt anyone would have picked this frumpy wallflower out of any lineup and say, “Surely this is the person who wrote that rich and powerful tome.”

            On the surface I might say don’t worry about what you look like.  Your readers don’t know and likely don’t care if your self-esteem is high or low.  I have never gotten with this author picture on the book jacket business.  I would rather not know what the author looks like because if it is a really good story, I am probably inclined to imagine the author as richer, more successful, more beautiful and wiser than they really are, and that is how I would like to be seen.

            But let’s not stop there.

            One layer under we come to the question of “Write what you know.”  (Surely you have heard that before).

            On a mico-level, “Write what you know” makes great sense.  By drawing on your own experiences and the information stored in your brain you can turn characters into people, make potentially stilted dialogue flow with realism, and transform your scene and scenery from cardboard to real, living trees.  Like Pinocchio, you can make real boys even as J. K. Rowling, welfare mom did when she wrote about a real boy in a special school fighting an evil wizard.  But wait, J. K. Rowling never experienced being a boy, and while she may have imagined all that other stuff in her head, she certainly did not “know” it.

            Well, you see, that is because on the macro-level, as far as the overall story itself goes, “Write what you know” takes on a whole different meaning.  The little frumpy old lady in my father’s office certainly never experienced the life of a rich and powerful industrial giant.  So can it be said that she wrote what she knew?


            Very simply, this level of knowing has nothing overtly to do with experience (that is micro-instructive), and it has nothing to do with what is in your head (you can always find some hapless magazine editor to check your facts) it has everything to do with what is in your heart.  In that sense, rather than saying “Write what you know,” we might say, instead, “Write what you believe.” Or as I have said many times, “Write what you know in your heart.”  Ayn Rand did, and I am sure J. K. Rowling did, too.


Writing Tip 10:

What do you believe?  What is important – vitally important?  What are you passionate about?  Write what your heart knows, because passion is the essence of a good story – the best stories.  When you write out of your passions, the reader will get it and you know, they just might become passionate about your story in return, and they might even believe you are richer, more successful, more beautiful and wiser than you really are.

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