Monday, June 3, 2013

Write What You Know (and Love)? Worked for me.

Maybe I heard it somewhere when I was quite young: Write what you know. So that's what I did. As a teenager, I wrote about horses and riding and ice hockey. Later as a freelance writer (while in college, for fun, and in my early 20s, for food), I followed an edited version of the old adage:  Write what you don't know about what you do know.

Three-plus decades later, I'm still following that advice. At times. It's good advice, after all. That's why I share it with those I teach and edit and coach. The advice works, in various iterations, for literary markets and mainstream media, for writers who want to add to their publication credits, and even more seasoned writers who want to expand their reach to new reading audiences or add another quiver to their writing toolbox.

But it's especially good advice for newer writers, especially those seeking that first publishing credit. Start by writing about what you love.

I was horse crazy teenager, taking riding lessons, dreaming and reading about horses, hanging around shows. I subscribed to equestrian magazines and, at around age 14, sent a humor essay ("How to Know You've Gone Completely and Irreversibly Horse Crazy") to the now defunct magazine Horse, of Course.

In high school, my brother had season tickets to the New York Rangers and at first I only reluctantly went along. My essay about unexpectedly becoming a rabid hockey fan was published in the team's official magazine. When the Rangers traded beloved goalie Ed Giacomin, I sent a protest poem to the New York Times, which the sports editor printed.

I was writing about what I knew, and about what I loved.

My magazine professor at Syracuse University, suggested we write what we don't know about what we already know a lot about. By then I'd been a horse owner and competitor for a few years, so I sought assignments from equine publications to interview Olympic hopeful riders, star trainers, brilliant course designers.  I wanted to know what I didn't know:  the secrets of riding at a high level, how to teach a flighty horse to behave, the ways width, height, and spread of jumps determined course difficulty.

After graduation, I supported myself (though not my horse habit; that was Dad's gift) by writing about horses and equine sports for specialty and trade publications, and for mainstream newspapers and magazines. That led to a public relations job with sponsors of the United States Equestrian Team. When I stopped riding (marriage, motherhood, a mortgage!), I thought I was done with writing about horses. And I was, for a while. I went on to write about many other things I knew a lot about -- motherhood mostly.

But at some point, I always circle back.

A few years ago, I contributed an essay to WhyWe Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press), which covered what I knew—my five horses and 20+ years competing—and what I was then only learning: how my equine passion could help me understand my teenage sons' responses to their own deeply held interests.  Another essay for the journal Sport Literate traced how an artifact of my horse show life – a tack truck – kept me connected to my past and provided courage to move on.

Given how well I've been served by putting my passions on the page, it surprised me, when I began teaching and editing, how frequently writers forget about, dismiss, or even avoid writing about the very things that they are most suited to write about, the things they love or that make them curious, engaged, intrigued. 

One student wrote about his children being grown and gone; losing faith in an old friend; a disastrous trip -- but never felt he'd written what mattered. I pointed out that in each piece, he referenced a strained relationship with his brother involving sports and financial ruin. Write about that, I urged. Out poured a series of essays and memoir pieces. He was writing fully and with intention about the one thing he knew most about, and in a way, loved – in the sense that he found it fulfilling to unravel the past on the page.

Two adult writers in a class were also reviving waylaid dreams of improving their musical skills, one on piano, the other the flute. Today, the piano player is a contributing essayist for a piano website, and the flutist recently published an essay about never having learned to properly count music. All of their pieces are about what they didn't know about something they already did know and loved.

Careers have been built this way, starting where you stand, or as my mother (and St. Francis) advised, "Bloom where you are planted."

Fiction writers too can plumb passion interests as a way to begin. Just ask Sara Gruen, who wrote the novel Riding Lessons long before Water for Elephants.  Attorneys John Grisham and Scott Turow set their early courtroom novels in the only world they knew. I have also worked with several novelists who generated publicity for their books by publishing essays about issues their novels' characters are passionate about.

Some tips for writing about what you know and love:

-         Think broadly about your topic (skiing as an active outdoor activity, for example) as well as specifically (how you felt missing a ski season due to a summertime injury).

-          Seek out local experts and "celebrities". I once found a retired ice hockey star living five miles from my home, quietly coaching a kids league.

-        Are you a curling lover taking that long-anticipated trip to the world curling championships?  Keep a journal to write from later. Or ask an editor if you can submit something about the experience. Live blog it for a sport site?

-          Double check facts, spelling.  Though I typically know my racing history, I once conflated the great racehorses War Admiral and Native Dancer, and came up with War Dancer.

-         Take notes about interesting people situations, conversations, experiences that you are privy to given your involvement in a specialized arena.

And getting it published:

-          Look for themed issues of  journals, magazines, websites. Themes can sometimes be interpreted broadly: a piece on a cat that helped you through grief might fit a "comfort" theme. Want to write about your illiterate grandfather?  Could fit an issue about "vulnerability".  Think outside, around, under the box.

-           Follow the calendar. If what you love and know about is connected to a season or holiday, write and submit months ahead. 
- Look for submission calls for collections in your sweet spot. I recently saw collections on knitting, tattoos, growing up Greek, and living near lakes.

-         Begin with the specialized publications, websites, blogs you like to read, then branch out.

Do I recommend you write only about what you already know about and love? No. How bored you might be after a while! But it's a great place to begin, return to, build from. Each time I write about horses now, I feel as though I hear the Cheers theme in the background -- it's the place I will always feel at home.


Erika D. said...

Lisa, I love this post! It's so illustrative and instructive--always a great mix. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara McDowell Whitt said...

Lisa, I have to share that just this morning my eye went to Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit. Her Special Illustrated Collector's Edition is on a shelf in the bookcase nearest my desk.

Lisa Romeo said...

Barbara - a great example of writing about what one loves. I first knew of Laura H. when she was an editor at Equus and I was writing for the horse pubs. Wondered if you knew of her struggle to write that book?

thanks for the comment - Lisa

Amy Morgan said...

Another inspiring, insightful and helpful post Lisa. "Bloom where you were planted" is going up on my board and this post is earmarked. Truly a gem of my day today.