Write on Wednesday-Writing What You Know

Anyone who has ever taken a class in creative writing, or read a book about writing, is familiar with the advice to write what you know. In my mind, I expand this idea to mean write what you know about, but also what you know deep down.

Brenda Ueland (my new favorite writer on writing) says it this way: “All people have in them this power to write greatly and well, when they freely and carelessly express what is true to them.”

How do you know what’s true to you? Just this morning, I was sitting in my favorite chair, enjoying those precious few moments of stillness before the chaos of the day. As I sat, sipping my coffee and watching the sun rise, I was reflecting on “stillness and calm,” this week’s topic for One Deep Breath. I played around with some haiku based on the serene stillness of a swan family, swimming on the pond near my office, and then some more with the summer- like breezes we had enjoyed the day before. Nothing that came out on the page felt right. Then I realized that the very moments I was enjoying ~ those moments just before dawn which I claimed for my own each day ~ these were the essence of stillness for me. When I began to write about this time of day that was so vital for my well being, the words flowed easily.

The more I write, the more I understand what it means to write what is true deep down. There is a certain sense of fulfillment in expressing this kind of truth, an ability to let the words flow freely, with no need for artifice, or for paging through the thesaurus or dictionary. I can write carelessly, without trying to impress an unknown audience or inner critic, because I’m expressing what’s coming directly from my heart.

Ueland taught creative writing in her native Minnesota for many years during the middle part of the 20th century. In her book If You Want To Write, she offers a favorite exercise for “getting people to write well, so they know how gifted they are and consequently grow in boldness and freedom.”

“I would ask them to tell about some childhood memory,” she states, “to write it as carelessly, recklessly, fast and sloppily as possible on paper. It worked for these reasons: they would forget about writing ‘writing,’ and about trying to please Teacher. Their only effort became to tell spontaneously, impulsively, what they remembered. I asked for childhood experiences for this reason. A child experiences things from his true self (creatively) and not from his theoretical self (dutifully), i.e., the self he thinks he ought to be. That is why childhood memories are the most living, and sparkling and true…”

So, how about you? What are your most “living, sparkling and true” thoughts? Are you writing what you know deep down?

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9 thoughts on “Write on Wednesday-Writing What You Know

  1. I remember being told, as a kid, to write what I know and thinking I didn’t know anything. I had no idea what it meant. Writing the truth, that which is “deep down”, is more honest and soulful. And that, I hope, is what I know. Brenda Ueland’s book is one of many writing books on my shelf. I may have to actually read one of them. :)

  2. Honestly, I haven’t been writing much of anything that is my own lately. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and note taking.

    I love this series you’re sharing with us on Wednesdays. The nuggets you share here (not just on Wednesdays) are such gems.

    When I started working through “Journalution,” I found it difficult to go back and write about childhood things–not because I had a horrible childhood, but I think because I have always felt that play and frivolity and doing things imperfectly as children do were luxuries that I could not indulge in.

    I think the thing that really set my writing free was participating in my first NaNoWriMo last November. No expectations of being published, no one else (not a single soul) would be reading what I wrote, no fact verification, no restraints. As you said, my writing was based on what I knew but then the imagination took wing and I found myself having such fun. Just this morning I was thinking about starting another novella just for me, but without the 30-day time limit.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. When I write – either on my blog or in my journal – I write best when I feel what I am writing. I cannot write about abstract things or things I have never experienced because my writing just comes out forced and stiff.

    So yes, there is nothing like writing the deep down truth.

  4. Digging down deep is the operative phrase – because it’s all inside us, the trick is to get these stories and our creativity out and onto the page. Norman Mailer once said the important thing about writing is to tell the truth – the hard, painful truth that you know.

  5. I am going to pull this book off my shelf and read it again this weekend. It profoudly touches me each time I read it.
    The post on my blog in my January 2007 archive dated 1-15-07 “Why I Write” sums up my feelings.
    Let me know what you think.

  6. Right now whenever I do really serious writing it’s all about the interior journey I’m taking; a reflection of the deeper reading I’m doing to dredge up a more focused and outward-seeing me. Whether it’s a short picture story, an interior dialogue, or a re-iteration of something meaningful but re-invented in my own words, I feel that I’m pouring liquid jewels on paper.

  7. Sorry – I missed correcting some pretty hilarious spelling!

    Anyway, I couldn’t agree with you more. My childhood was a mixed bag of tricks – but even the not so great memories hold their truth. I am not just the sum total of my good experiences – both the good and the bad have made me who I am.

  8. That is a great post Becca! I totally agree with and relate to this post. When I wrote the post “goodbye” in my blog, for the first time I experienced the child memory thing… It felt so emotional and deep. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll practice my writing from that perspective from now on…

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