Writing Vexations: “Write What You Know”


It has been a bit of a week for me–aside from hosting my in-laws, which is always an experience that I would describe as akin to torture, I had a time finishing A Field of Daisies.

Field is about a mother who has been the victim of workplace violence (specifically, a mass shouting) who is overhearing two gun lobbyists talk flippantly about gun control and gun control protests. I was inspired by a conversation that I overheard a few weeks ago on the T. A man was reading a copy of the Globe and ran across an article on gun control and then began to speak very loudly to his friend about just how stupid people are and how controlling guns makes us so much less safe. I wondered about the other people who were on the train, and who may or may not have been victims of gun crimes. We were on a line that runs through particularly violent-prone portions of the city, but what we’ve learned in these past few years is that powerful guns can show up in some of the safest places on the planet. Just as this man and his ideas were doing violence to my ears, gun violence can touch any corner of our society–or at least it would seem.

And so that’s what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture the emotion and impact of a woman listening to two people talk about her misery in the most flippant and asinine of ways.

and what I got was failure.

I don’t read a lot of writing advice, but I do read some things, and one of the pieces of advice that always bubbles to the surface is “write what you know.” Well, if I only write what I know, I’m going to be a boring writer indeed. Do you want to read about how many diapers that I change a day? Or how to put on a child’s velcro shoe? Or how to make dinner while two toddlers are fighting over a fireengine toy? That’s what I know right now. I know other things, but my primary “know” space has to do with raising two boys.

I’m fortunate to not be a victim of gun violence. While my husband is a card carrying NRA member, he isn’t particularly resourceful when it comes to the ins and outs of assault rifles.

When I read back on my failure of a piece, I know that it is because I don’t have enough knowledge about the true impact of these guns on people, about the raw emotions of people who are victims of violent crime. I know how I felt while watching the Sandy Hook coverage, as a mother and former teacher, but I cannot possibly know what the people who have been directly and irrecoverably impacted by that tragedy feel. How do I capture their sadness, anger, exhaustion, helplessness, numbness in a story when I do not know these things? How can I capture the flippant nature of a K-street lobbyist when I don’t know enough about these guns?

I can’t. And that is why I’ve got a huge dud on my hands.

Of course, I’m an educated woman, so there are things that I can do. I can read–commentaries, letters to the editor, books, websites about family/victim perspectives on gun violence. Pamphlets, manuals, forums, articles, general information about assault weapons and their accessories.

But that would take a long time, and even then, the material may not be necessarily helpful to my story.

So I’m at an impasse. I don’t know where to go from here. I have 1200 words of bullshit, that convey nothing, that move the reader nowhere. I have an idea, a feeling, a seemingly moral that I want to tell and convey, but no vehicle through which to do it. In other words, I’m flippin’ screwed.

The problem with “writing what you know,” for me anyway, is that I feel like I don’t know much. I know a few things and the things that I know, I know with a depth. I know politics, I know teaching, I know motherhood, I know Blackness, I know American history, I know many more things…but for each of those things, I know nothing about one hundred other things. How do I expand my knowledge well enough to write without bogging down things by taking too much time studying or info dumping in my story to no real benefit?

and then there is genre fiction.

I love sci fi an fantasy as much as the next nerd, but what I’m finding is that every little subgenre has their dossier of symbolism/tropes/stuff and I’ve never paid attention to those things. The imagery, history and lineage of some of these genres (cyberpunk and steampunk for example) can make blind forays into the waters result in work that reads cheaply, trite and amateur in nature. I’m not trying to do that either! How do I write with originality yet within some of the walls that genre readers enjoy? And how can I learn the genre rules well enough so that i can break them and not look like an idiot?


These are my vexations this week. I have no answers, only questions, consideration, and progress forward. If you are a person with an answer, please point me in the right direction!


I hope that your vexations are minor and short lived. Let’s have a great weekend and start another awesome week on Monday!



2 thoughts on “Writing Vexations: “Write What You Know”

  1. Hey there, don’t be so down on yourself 🙂

    You know who made a bajillion dollars writing what they know, and what they knew wasn’t much (in my opinion)? The Bridget Jones’s diary person, whoever that was. Just a bunch of crap about her smoking cigarettes and losing weight and gaining weight and being in love. Gajillions of dollars. Let me think of more…hmm…thinking….oh yeah: anyone who writes erotica and “does it well” (whatever that means). Just a bunch of people sticking…uh…well you know what I mean. Who doesn’t know about that?

    Here’s something I always say: I can like anything if it’s done well. That’s why I can see a movie or read a book I’d never watch/pick up and enjoy it, because it was done well. There are a lot of people out there like that.

    Then there’s research:
    When I write, I put in a lot of technical or geographical stuff and have to research to do it. I’m not published of course 🙂 hehe. But that’s what I do. And it’s fun.

    Here’s another idea: write what you don’t know and make it funny. Example, “Nerd’s guide to picking up the babes.” Imagine a book full of the worst possible advice on how to pick up babes, from a nerd’s perspective. You get to be wrong about stuff for 200 pages of sheer hilarity.

    So cheer up!

    • This certainly made me feel better, Kent! I really had to laugh at this one. I know that you are right–it’s hard sometimes when you get excited about something only to figure out that you don’t have enough to bring it to life the way you want to. You are TOTALLY write about some of the literature you’ve mentioned, though! Clearly we should all be writing about boozing it up and getting laid. If you’ve experienced your 20’s you have something to write about! lol

      This is a great reminder. Thank you for it. I’ll keep on shucking and finding better ways to write well. I’m going to table Daisies for now, but I am going to come back to it. Because it’s a story worth telling. Well. 🙂

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