How Not to Teach Writing to Enthusiastic Young Writers

There has been some discussion in my household about my lack of updates here on my blog. I am going to rectify that, starting with this post.  I always wonder what I should write about. Should I write a short-short story? A “between the stories” sort of story? An editorial? Some memories? Decisions….argh! I end up frozen with indecision. Well, today I’m biting the bullet, and it’s going to be what it ends up being.

I’m going to call this, “How Not to Teach Writing to Enthusiastic Young Writers.”

When I was in high school, my school required that we take two English classes each semester. One was strictly for literature, and the other was something we called GVC – grammar, vocabulary, and composition.  We had different teachers for different portions of the GVC course, and a teacher I had had several times before drew the composition course this particular year. She wasn’t a bad teacher, but she was stuck teaching composition to group of adolescents whether they wanted to learn it or not. As far as I know, the teacher was not a writer herself, and she taught writing the way the book said to teach it, according to the general wisdom of high school writing instruction.

I had enjoyed writing fanciful little stories off and on, most of which had been well-received by family and teachers, and I was looking forward to a class on writing.

One day we were in class, and she was expounding on writing topics. “Write what you know!” she said, “Always write what you know!

Now, for a class of adolescents with little-to-no life experience, this is incredibly limiting. What do you write about? Teen-age angst? A part-time job? Hanging out with friends? Even a young person with significant life experiences may not recognize these experiences as something to write about, or if they do, the experiences may not be something they really want to re-live and share with the world.

I knew that this was a problem for me, personally. My mind raced, trying to think of what I could write about. I was the only child of older parents, lived in a small Southern town, went to a small school, and most of the semi-interesting stuff in my life was pretty much the same stuff that my peers had experienced, or things that I wasn’t interested in dealing with in writing. In short – boring and very, very limited.

But I was never without my imagination. I had recently read about a street scene from the early 1900’s, full of street vendors and activity. This had completely captured my imagination. So I raised my hand and asked, “But what if we want to write about a street full of street vendors?”

The teacher laughed.

Then she replied, still laughing, “What would YOU know about street vendors?”

The class laughed with her. One boy, who was a particular thorn in my side throughout middle school and high school, turned around and smirked at me. “Yeah, Jane, what would YOU know about that?”

Face burning, I had no answer. I did NOT say what was in my mind, “But I’ve read lots of books where the author couldn’t have actually experienced what they wrote about.” Instead, I sat there while they laughed, afraid to say anything else.

And I let that dictate my writing for next 30 years. I wrote very little over that time.

As an adult, I can see beyond the apparent limits of this phrase, and can agree with it, if you expand on the meaning of the word “know.” At that time, I could not see how this could be expanded – and apparently, neither could my teacher.

Here is what I think:  “Writing what you know” isn’t meant to limit a writer to their own personal life experiences.

You can know something by researching it thoroughly – thus is born historical fiction.

You can know something by interviewing someone who has experienced it; this is another form of research.

You can know something by creating the entire world for yourself – and this can apply to all genres of fiction. If you mix that with research, you have endless possibilities, including streets full of street vendors. Speculative fiction, both science fiction and fantasy, relies heavily on this last method. Tolkien created huge amounts of back story, including an entire language, for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He knew his world thoroughly.

Maybe it should be “know what you write” rather than “write what you know.”

So what could my teacher have said all those years ago that wouldn’t have left me afraid to try my literary wings? She might have said, “Can you research that and come up with something?” Or she might have said, “Give it a try,” and let me see what I could do with the idea without research, and then steered me in the direction of the library to fill the gaps.

Either way, I would have expanded my world and improved my writing abilities, and so would my classmates. How many writers could she have inspired that day, had she looked beyond the apparent limits of popular pedagogy?

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