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!


Writing Vexations: Sometimes, It’s About Willpower


I woke up this morning overwhelmed–I wanted to complete a flash fiction and a longer short-fiction today…but there was so much going on. We’re moving, and that requires a lot of my energy. To further complicate things, my little one year-old and two year-old still need to have their life be on their regular routine. My days can be summed up fairly simply: 3 meals a day, 2 loads of laundry, 1 walk, 1 nap. Everything else has to fit around those essential things, and moving is no different. Indeed, moving makes it more challenging.

So add to the fact that I’m generally writing some 2,000 words a day via my blogs or my fiction, and you have pretty full days. Well this morning, It all came crashing down. I was overwhelmed and immobilized by all of the things I had to do.

It’s not that I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I refuse to participate in it. My official day-job is taking care of my two precious boys, but if I want to make writing a supplement to our monthly income, I need to treat writing as a second job. There was no “teacher’s block” when teaching was my day job, thus there can be no “writer’s block” now. So when I kept sitting at my computer and staring blankly at Facebook instead of putting words to digital paper, I decided it was time to get up. Get something done, kiss some babies and try again.

It was the best possible thing I could do–feeling accomplished about my tangible tasks freed my mind up for the writing tasks that I had for the rest of the day. To solidify that my “block” was over, I took a moment after I put the boys down for their nap to take a long shower and wash my hair. (If you understand Black women and our complicated relationship with hair, you understand why this was an important step–thank God for my wonderful locs!!).

I’m now sitting here having written a little over 2500 words today. My Flash Fiction for chuck’s challenge is done and I’ll post it tomorrow. The Hand that Feeds You has been completed and is now called A Field of Daisies, a title that I think is very clever and almost chilling for what it is written about. I’m hoping to polish a little bit and then post it for critique tomorrow. It ended up being a lot shorter than I thought it would be, and I want to give the muse a chance to think of things to add on.

I’ve yet to experience being uninspired, but I have experienced being overwhelmed about life and writing. For so long, I’ve let life dictate my writing schedule. No longer content to put writing on the back-burner, and feeling an urgency to give this talent a chance to bring positive change to my life, I’m forcing life to make room for writing. I know that I can write and meet all of my obligations. Some days will be wildly more successful than others, but the goal is to be at least minimally successful on more days than more. It’s 10:45 on Thursday, but I think I’ll be meeting all of my goals for the week. That feels damn good.

I hope that you’ve found moments of breakthrough this week–moments when you set yourself back onto the path that you wanted to be on. We all have moments of frustration and overwhelming…it’s what we do in those moments that dictate if we’re writers who accomplish something or writer’s who are still looking forward to “someday.”

Current Vexation: Language? Culture? World-building is going splat.


One of the key things on my task list this week has been world-building–specifically culture building–for the novel that I’m planning, A Terrible Thing to Waste. I spent the month of May working on my characters and I had a lot of fun thinking about who they are and what makes them tick. Thinking deeply about their relationships has already given me a few ideas for plot points and conflicts. I know that I’m going to have a lot of fun bringing those characters to life.

I’m having a little trouble with the world that they live in, though. I’m finding myself wondering if I’ve created something problematic. I have a theme and a message that I want to get across, and I want to make sure that the nuance of the message is not lost in a poorly developed world–specifically the relationships between governments that I want and need to create.

I knew that I was going to run into a snag when I started doing this novel planning. I’m grateful for the challenge. I’d much rather figure this out now than get half way through the manuscript to come the conclusion that everything I’ve worked on is problematic, convoluted, and unworkable. Then again, I’m now at a lose of where to go and how to proceed.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Holly Lisle and her clinics. Her How to Build a Culture clinic has been helpful to me in the past, so I thought that I’d go back to it for some pointers. She strongly suggests thinking about language first and then figuring out the rest of culture from that. Language, she writes, is the soul of a people. She’s right. I totally agree. But I’m not a fantasy writer, really, though the novel that I’m writing takes place in a world and time of my creation. I’m not trying to write another LOTR. I don’t want a new alphabet and junk. I’m thinking about how I can choose specific words to have powerful meaning, giving a dialect and rhythm to the world that I’m creating without having to start from scratch.

So that’s a frustration at the moment.

There is also a greater problem: I want to think that the project of creating a whole new world will be fun, daring, adventurous. However, I’m finding myself resisting it. I’m worried about cliche, being trite, being boring. I’m trying to think of a way to write a world that is enduring–one that is interesting enough to revisit over multiple books. My logistical mind is stifling my whimsical and creative mind and I don’t know what to do. This works well with flash fictions and short stories (my logistical mind loves parameters) but not so much with novel planning and writing. I must break the barriers I’m putting up for myself!

I’m trying to dedicate June to world-building so I can give myself the entire month of July for plotting. August 1st is my start date. I want to start getting words on that pretty digital paper. Hopefully, after a writing free weekend (shocker!), I’ll have found inspiration and a tool to break the barriers. Though, I must say, it isn’t inspiration that’s holding me back–I’m getting little pops from the Muse seemingly every day–it’s the editor and critic in me that won’t let me move forward…

I hope that your writing this week has been barrier-free! Here’s to a productive end to the week!