Write What You Know

Way back when, on the final exam for my grade 12 Creative Writing class, I wrote a short story. I came up with it on the fly, banged it out, received a satisfactory grade and to this day it remains a high-water mark for me. I pretty much stopped writing my own creative stories after high school, realizing I had a talent for helping other writers focus and develop their stories instead. I sat down to do my own work a handful of times since then, and have never been satisfied.

I’m determined to complete my latest attempt, however, no matter how much I dislike it. And boy howdy, do I dislike it. It’s a generally accepted fact that artists, musicians, writers and designers alike will produce a lot more work than actually sees the light of day – for every masterpiece there’s a pile of scrunched-up paper balls containing rough sketches, abandoned ditties or narrative shreds that didn’t pass muster. The key is to realize that without those abandoned projects, the masterpieces would never come to be. The story I’m struggling to write isn’t just a product of the effort I put into it, per se, but of all the writing I’ve ever done in my life. When I teach skiing, I’m quick to remind my students that it takes hundreds of kilometres to commit any new technique to muscle memory. I shudder to think of how much dreck I’ve got to write before I begin to like any of it.

In thinking about my writing heyday, I tried very hard not to slip into nostalgia. None of that Hank Hill “Oh, the glory days when I was a high school quarterback” nonsense. The past is the past and now is now; either way you write what you know. But in thinking about the past, I realized something: I write exactly the same stuff now as I did then. The trouble, the reason I don’t like it, is that I want to do better than I used to, and I haven’t put in the practice in over a decade.

That story I wrote for the exam stands out in my memory as a favourite, mostly for the concept: A conversation between a bodyguard and his charge, an alien ambassador, on their walk back from the consulate to the official residence. They suffer assassination attempts along the way, which the bodyguard handles in stride, all while carrying on a philosophical discussion about the nature of violence. Get it? Crazy stunts and hijinks alongside a highbrow discussion (the literary equivalent of this). Juxtaposition! The alien’s dialogue consisted of inhuman noises, a language I never translated but that the bodyguard understood – you had to figure out what he said based on the bodyguard’s response. Clever!

Interesting concept? Definitely, and the fact that it was a short story – probably not more than 1,000 words – masked its glaring weaknesses. Namely, my story had no narrative, and no characters. Honestly, neither the bodyguard nor the alien even had a name. The alien was nothing more than a Socratic stand-in, and the bodyguard a straw man to illustrate the point of their conversation. There was no story, just a conversation dressed up with action scenes to make an otherwise dull conversation worth reading.

And that’s where I still am. I’m actually very good at fleshing out ideas and concepts. I can come up with the details that make a world unique and genuine, the rationale behind an abstract concept that makes the whole endeavour worthwhile, and if given someone else’s story, I’m adept at writing scenes and dialogue (if I say so myself). But for my own writing, I have a great deal of trouble getting past the story concept. My characters feel empty. The story strikes me as an excuse to explore the world, not the other way around. Far from wanting to regain my high school glory days, I want like hell to move past them.

And that’s where I am . What do I know? The angst of writer’s block. So that’s what I’m writing about, here and now. Maybe I’ll look back at these early blog posts in a decade and decide this was my ‘meta’ phase, when I relied on writing about writing to generate writing instead of just getting down to the job of writing about other stuff. I’ll take it on faith that embracing where I’m at bears doing, because how do you move on to the future without exploring the present?

~Mike!

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2 thoughts on “Write What You Know

  1. “Write what you know” is advice that really can’t be over rated,,,I often find that when I’m writing is a tad too close to the bone and hurts a little bit, that’s when I’m at my best. When I stop trying to sound good and just write from the heart ( yak I know! ). Hope that alien story comes back to life with a bang for you someday :}

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