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Write What You Know About

One of the bits of hackneyed advice often heaped upon wannabe writers is Write What You Know.

How this became the gospel preached by writing teachers, English professors, and editors is a mystery to me. It may have to do with the fact that most writing teachers, English professors, and editors haven't earned a living as working writers. Here's my dictum for purveyors of such nonsense: Teach What You Know. You obviously don't know a heck of a lot about writing.

I've never played a mountain dulcimer, had a baby by natural childbirth, flown a falcon, landed an airplane after the pilot slumped dead over the controls, been a surrogate mother, sold bagels on the dock at Ketchikan, Alaska, been an auto mechanic, a nun, or a high wire walker. I haven't lived on an island researching solitary bees, either. But I've written about all those things. Convincingly, some might say.

I write what I know about. How do I find out what I need to know? Research. I used to go to my small-town library once a week and return home laden with books. I read them; I took notes. The facts found their way into my work. Sometimes I traveled for research. I spent a week in Kansas talking with aerial applicators (crop dusters, they used to be called). I interviewed a woman farmer there, and I sat at the edge of a field listening to the sound of the wind rippling through the wheat. I chatted up a victim of brown-lung disease in South Carolina. I visited a llama farm in Colorado and interviewed the guy in charge to find out llamas' idiosyncrasies (they spit to establish dominance).

These days research is easy. You Google, you cut and paste. In this age of the Internet, we can learn so much so quickly and so easily. My advice to aspiring writers? Forget what your high school English teacher told you. She was probably passing on the (useless) advice she got from her English 101 professor. And if she didn't become a professional writer, who is she to advise you?

Wannabe writers: Go out there and learn. Learn as much as you can as fast as you can, anywhere you can. Then sit down at your keyboard and Write What You Know About. Convincingly, of course.
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