Saturday, March 2, 2013

Write What You Know—Or Not

Odds are, you've heard the maxim spouted off by high school English teachers: Write what you know. At least I remember mine saying that over and over. But the thing is, in high school I didn't want to write what I knew about. That was boring. That was just my everyday life. Why would anyone find that interesting?

In college, I changed my tune. I grew up in a small (very small—hardly on the map small) town in Wyoming. When I lived there, it wasn't remarkable. It was just life.

What I knew for the first 18 years of my life:
Devil's Tower and the Black Hills of Wyoming.
Photo via Flickr by Spappy.joneS
But when I headed to college in Iowa, suddenly I realized all those daily experiences I thought were so normal were actually quite remarkable. I learned that it's not every day the old timer cowboys golf in their manure-covered boots or that you can say your family grew up owning a "mountain." And so I wrote about Wyoming. It was what I knew, and it made for interesting stories.

After college, though, I wrote about other things I was assigned to write about—remodeling, decorating, health and wellness on occasion, business, green living. They weren't things I necessarily knew, but I learned about them as I went and so came to know a fair amount about these topics.

At this point, as the distance between my time in my home state and my life away from it increased, Wyoming became less what I knew than a collection of peculiar-sweet memories that made for good stories with friends or random people who remarked with surprise on where I grew up.

Now, however, I find myself gravitating back toward writing about what I know more.

As a new mom, I have started a growing list of stories I'd like to pitch to parenting magazines. And as a woman who suffers from endometriosis, I am researching and writing more about what this chronic illness is and how it affects my life. I have started a new blog on the topic, am busy connecting online with other women who have endometriosis, and I have ideas swirling around in my head for articles I want to write, more in-depth research I want to do, and even a book I may want to pitch to a publisher someday down the road.

These are the things I know now, the things I have personal experience with, the things that interest me at the moment. Sure, I'd still have to do research and line up expert or "real life" interviews to write articles on parenting or endometriosis. But I'd also have my own unique insights to contribute, which is incredibly valuable.

Last week, my freelance writing students brought in lists of story ideas they had brainstormed. Many of them struggled because, they said, they didn't know anything. They weren't experts on anything, so what could they possibly write about?

I told them two things:

1. You know more than you think. And writing about what you know—what you have experience with and personal knowledge of—is incredibly valuable and can set you apart. Don't downplay what you know or think it's mundane. Odds are, if it's interesting to you, it's interesting to other people too.

2. You don't have to write what you know. Think of a topic that interests you, that you wonder about and think others will wonder about as well. As a journalist, you aren't expected to know everything you write about inside and out. If you have a great idea, can do the necessary research and find the right sources, and identify the right market for your story, you can write about you want, even if you aren't an expert.

In other words: write what you know—or not.

A brief public service announcement: March is Endometriosis Awareness Month and I, along with many of my fellow endometriosis sufferers, are trying to spread the word about this chronic illness that affects as many as 10 percent of women in the United States.

Odds are, whether you realize it or not, you know someone who has endometriosis. You may even suffer from it yourself. But it's an incurable illness that often goes undiagnosed for years—and most women keep silent about because its symptoms aren't something they are comfortable talking about publicly. That needs to change, so people are aware of the problems endometriosis causes, so doctors become more informed of what can be done to help women with endometriosis, and so researchers have more funding to support efforts to find its causes and new treatments.

Please take a moment to learn about endometriosis and spread the word about this illness that affects so many women's fertility and quality of life.

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