Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

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Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

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72 thoughts on “Sound Advice?

    • He did write about hockey and did so with passion and eloquence. Of course, the strategy didn’t work with all my students, but with enough that I routinely taught it. I think I taught well, Shelley, but like most teachers I know, I focused more on howmy teaching could be improved.

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  1. I would have loved to have you for a teacher! Teachers who truly help you to UNDERSTAND instead of just PERFORM, are rare and wonderful. I had to wait until my junior year of high school to find the one I had been waiting for- and then I truly started to enjoy writing instead of just cranking it out. 🙂

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    • It took some time, some role models, and some training for me to mature into the sort of teacher who focused on understanding, Becca, but I did arrive there.I’m glad you found a teacher who started you on your journey to being the fine writer you are.

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  2. Without reading the other comments I’m guessing that Dean wrote about hockey because that seemed to elicit the most emotion (negative) in his associations.

    Janet, I would have loved to have had you as a teacher. With your inspiration maybe I would have gone on to major in English instead of biology!

    This post was a great lesson as well. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Right you are, Rita. The thing I like about his piece was that he didn’t vilify his father for making him play hockey, but rather seemed to understand his dad wanted to share something with his son that he had loved. Would you rather have majored in English? Some of the happiest people I know are or were biologists.

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  3. I am so impressed that instead of simply repeating to another generation, that which had been offered to you, you explored your options. I think teachers that do that move the profession forward and provide great benefit to their students. I always wanted to write, but I had mostly been discouraged in school. In 11th grade, I had a new young English teacher who had us reading and writing “unconventional” material. Not only did I love his class, he encouraged me to “find a way to make writing part of your life.” It took a long time, but…

    I guess you have to trust that you helped a lot of those students in a variety of ways. Writing it so important in so many professions. The first hurdle is to have confidence in your own writing, and it sounds like that’s what you helped your students achieve. Bravo Janet! This post made me happy.

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    • You’re so right, Dan; we teachers do have to believe we’re making a difference, though some parents and students tell us we do. Thank you for the confidence comment; I always felt that was the most important thing I could give young writers. I think there are many, many bloggers out there who are happy you found a way to make writing a part of your life. I didn’t possess many finely honed skills as a young teacher, but I hope my passion and enthusiasm for the students and subjects I taught reached some of them the way your new young teacher reached you.

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      • I’m sure you did Janet. I think he was sharing his enthusiasm with me. But that was at a time when enthusiasm about writing was kind of rare. Ironically, i was a math/science geek but most of the teachers who took an interest in me were English and wood shop. That kind of attention is so meaningful to kids that age. Insecure, introverted and quiet, to be told that your thoughts have meaning is huge.

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      • I remember when none of my teachers seemed to want to teach writing. I was a senior before I found one; she was retired, but came back to teach one class because of overload at the school. She sent me to college well prepared and thinking I could write.

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  4. I loved this article! This is a great model of effective brainstorming to write about a topic one might initially react with “I don’t know anything about. . . .” I wish I had read it while I was teaching. And readers, if you don’t know Janet personally, she is one of the most effective teachers I ever met. I never left a workshop Janet taught without feeling I had just added a new tool to my toolbox!

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    • This is such a lovely, kind comment, Susan, especially coming from a skilled teacher like you. I had such fun teaching workshops in Craig, and, in doing so, developed a deep respect for the district’s teachers.

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  5. That “write what you know” thing — the way it’s generally understood is such fascist BS. I’ve been told it so many times and every time I think, “How do YOU know what I know?”

    I’ve also seen how that axiom (taken the shortest distance by many people in our truly self-absorbed baby boomer generation) has led to numerous confessional “novels” – thinly veiled autobiography. I agree with Nathan Englander, and he said it so well! As I was writing my second novel, Savior, I found myself drawing on my own childhood for many things in that story and it felt almost as if I were dipping a pen into my own past and bringing color to the story of two boys who would grow up to be very different men.

    Another stupid thing I’ve heard (a spinoff on the “write what you know” thing) “You can’t write about men or from a male perspective if you’re female.” I have been told that many times, too, but I think that under the film of gender there is a human being and that is universal among all people everywhere.

    My students also liked this kind of “brain-storming.” Clustering really worked for a lot of them though, honestly, I didn’t get it — but I taught it because I saw it work so well. You’re right — it really opened their imaginations and helped them see how to connect ideas and experiences and create something new. You must have been a great teacher. 🙂

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    • Thank you for the compliment, Martha. I felt I was a teacher in progress right up to the day I retired. When I wrote this post, I thought you might like the Englander quote. When I first read it, I felt like a fresh wind had blown some cobwebs out of my brain. Funny, I never use clustering either, except when asked to in a workshop; it somehow feels like an unnecessary step to me. And finally, you’ve given me another quote that will inform my writing, “…I think that under the film of gender there is a human being and that is universal among all people everywhere.”

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  6. It took me a long time to figure this out. Once I had figured it out I became a much better writer. I so agree with Nathan Englander. What we each know is what it is like to be a human being. I may never have known what it’s like to be attacked by a bull. But I do know the feeling of being in an automobile accident. I also know what it’s like to feel loss, to be in love, to feel pain and illness and anger and disappointment and the excitement of discovery. And it doesn’t matter whether my character is on Mars or getting ready for a date or an IRS audit, I have a pretty good idea of how they feel. All I have to do is get in touch with those feelings. Actors do it all the time. That’s why so many of them give us great performances.

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    • I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful, detailed response, Dan. Englander’s words had the same impact on me. If I ever do start to write fiction, and I think I will, it will be because of his quote. Like you, I have experienced and can describe a world of emotion. It is about being human.

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      • Not sure what kind of fiction you will write. Make sure you write from the heart and not from the brain. I think you may just have some wonderful stories to tell. One thing is for sure. I do not do it for the money. I do it for the joy of telling a story. I feel like I belong to that tradition of storytellers who started telling their stories around the campfire. Storytelling is a calling, you know. If you honor the stories, the stories will honor you.

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      • Interesting, Don, I, too have long thought of myself as a storyteller descended from and surrounded by storytellers. My dad had a gift for it; and at family reunions, after eating, our preferred activity is to tell one another stories. Also, your advice about writing from the heart rang true to me. I think I wander astray when I let my brain start making decisions rather than going with what I feel. There is writerly wisdom in you, my friend.

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  7. No one could tell my impish muse what to write, the rubbish I produced in class filled teachers waste baskets and had me labelled a communist by 13. Great post Janet, how I wish I had been in your class.

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    • Sheila, I’ve long thought how much fun it would have been to teach you with your creative mind unburdened by convention and your love of words. I’m so glad you didn’t let those bound by conventions and rules squelch your spirit. You are my definition of spunky.

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  8. Loved how you went from Dix’s comment and decided to move the lesson “along”…..your humor had me smiling from ear to ear, once, again……valuable input from a great teacher and mentor. Aunt Beulah hits one outta the park, again!!! 😉

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    • In Dean’s piece, he didn’t malign his dad in any way, but seemed to understand his father wanted to share something with his son that he had loved as a child. I worked with a principal and then superintendent who was handsome, charming and sophisticated — being from the big city of Chicago — until he got merry at parties and took out his two front teeth to prove he used to play hockey.

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  9. Hi Aunt Beulah
    Reading your story from my hospital bed in Australia, I know you would have been an amazing teacher. You continue to inspire many people, the plan of thoughts and emotions your student put to paper is a fascinating way to inspire a great story to tell.
    I come from a family of storytellers and whenever we have a family gathering, we take a trip down memory lane. Reminiscing over stories we have heard over the years from the members in our family who continue to stoke the fires of times that have come and gone. These stories go back many generations, and the wonderful thing about hearing these stories again and again, is only the storytellers in our family keep these stories real, vivid, heartfelt and memorable.
    The story can have the same foundation, yet it is how it is told that fascinates me, it is in the delivery of the story that you find an amazing storyteller.
    Much love and hugs heading your way Aunt Beulah from
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊💜💜 💜

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    • Hurray! I heard from Annie today! I’m sorry you’re still in the hospital. I’ll email you soon. I could have guessed you are a storyteller from a family of storytellers, Annie, and that favorite stories are told and retold. They get better, don’t they? My siblings and I never tire of telling and hearing them again. (I’m not so sure about our spouses!) I enjoyed your line “…continue to stoke the fires of times that have come and gone.” That is exactly what we storytellers do. An equal amount of hugs and love heading back to you, Annie. You brightened my day.

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      • Hi Aunt Beulah
        Thankyou for your email, your beautiful kind words have sat gently on my mind all day. I opened my WP and found three stories I had attempted to write about. I chose one that was a little more light hearted and the final chapter happened recently. You inspired me to give this foggy head of mine a bit of a workout and write the final chapter and post my story, I hope you get a giggle out of it. The reason I began to blog was to try and escape the pain for a while, thankyou Aunt Beulah for encouraging me to pick up the virtual pen again.
        Love you dearly
        Hugs from across the miles💜
        from
        Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊

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    • It’s such a compliment to be compared to someone’s favorite teacher, Kay. Thank you. I did the best I could every day. Lots of days were great and some not so much, but the young people I worked with were never boring. I enjoyed working with them.

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  10. Even at my writing class I’m still being told ‘write what you know’ and I’ve often wondered how it applies to fantasy writers. Thank you for this, you’ve inspired me at a time when I need it the most.

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    • I’m glad Englander’s quote was helpful to you as well, Katie. I’m also happy to hear you are still going to class. I hope you are finding time to write now your little one has arrived.

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  11. Sound advice indeed.

    If we can get beyond our hesitation and insecurity… I wonder if it’s possible to write anything… but what we know… even if we know nothing about the subject at hand. Hmmm… I may have just confused myself. Englander’s quote is perfect.

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    • I don’t think you confused yourself; rather, I think you reasoned your way to the break-through thought that sometimes we write things we don’t really know anything about. I know I do; and I rely on my good sense to lead me to discard that particular piece of writing. I hope I’m never disappointed.

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  12. Mind mapping is a powerful brainstorming technique. One moment your mind is blank and the next it is full of possibilities. I have been fortunate to have had excellent teachers in our State school system with an interest in getting us to reach for our best. I think I have used remembered emotion pretty much from the start, so I guess I was guided by dear Mr Dixon. Teachers have a profound effect. Janet, no doubt you have left a lot of inspired children in your wake!

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    • It sounds like you’ve had good teachers, indeed, Christine, as evidenced by your mind mapping and use of remembered emotion. You were fortunate. I’ve enjoyed reading all your comments this evening. It’s good to hear from you again.

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      • I have been a very bad follower since taking my writing more seriously and I was never real good at visiting anyway. I only learned mind mapping a few years ago and usually forget to use it when I’m have a think session. I enjoyed my visit to your pages.

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      • I, too, have cut back on my following of blogs I enjoy so I could write more, so I understand, Christine. I think the important thing is that I don’t completely stop. I learn so much from other blogs.

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    • Of course Lucie will get referral credit, though for the life of me I can’t think how it will benefit her. Maybe I could send her an old, partially filled book of Green Stamps. It’s good to hear from you. I like knowing there is someone else in the world who chuckles at the sight of a cow. I’ll visit your site soon.

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  13. U sound very much like my favourite teacher . Mrs Redden . By reading this article of yours, I am able to resonate every incident with her . Wish in life I could somewhere make u both guys meet each other . This was a heartwarming read . I will surely forward your blog to her . I’m glad that I can find Mrs. Redden’s reflection in u . U don’t know , how much proud u made me today . This thought of mine will keep me cheerful all day long . Long-live, both of u !

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    • I love this comment, Fatma, because I love knowing that I reminded you of your favorite teacher, Mrs. Redden. I’ll bet I would like her if I could meet her. I, too, had a favorite teacher, Mrs. Thomas, and I am happy when I am reminded of her, so I understand why you will feel cheerful all day. Thank you, thank you for your kind words and comment. You made my day!

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    • I think the writing you describe is possibly the best use of writing, and I know from personal experience in both my journal and as a student in a Master’s program, it is possible. I’m not so sure it can be taught to students of the age mine were, especially when they are expected to pass district or state tests on creative or expository writing. I used to do journal writing with them, but had trouble convincing them their journal was not a diary. Thanks for your comment. It is both thoughtful and insightful.

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  14. Thank you for clarifying what I, like many of your students, have long struggled with: what do I really know?

    I’ve always like scribbling. I started with random thoughts in a journal. I recall the first time I consciously tried to write a piece based on what I knew – it was a monumental flop! (although my 10th grade teacher was much kinder in the way he communicated to me). In reflection, I tried to use a voice that wasn’t mine, touching on a subject which I only understood in my head. If only I were in your 4th grade class, I think that first attempt would have been more successful.

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