Welcome to the third installment of what I did on my summer vacation… errr, uhhh, make that my blog series Year One, or what I learned in my first year of publishing!
You can find the previous installments here:
This week I’d like to discuss choosing what to write. This one is really tough for me. A lot of people will tell you to write what you know. This is good advice, but not necessarily the only option.
Yes, it absolutely makes it easier to write about things you know about, especially if you have an intimate knowledge of the subject matter, but with the internet, you don’t have to rely solely on the information swirling around in your head or what’s available at the local library. Nearly all the information there ever was is available at your fingertips if you are willing to do the work and research it.
This means that what you know can be anything. If there’s something you want to write about, research the hell out of it, make yourself an expert and get to it.
Now to completely tear that notion down with a scene from Good Will Hunting. If you’re not familiar with or haven’t seen the film I highly recommend it. In this scene, Sean (Robin Williams) and Will are having a discussion on a park bench, when Sean holds a mirror up to Will and gives a valuable life lesson (Sean’s his therapist, so at least it’s not unwarranted).
It’s a little long, but it’s good (you can skip below to the youtube clip if you don’t want to read the whole thing):
Sean: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me… fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?
Sean: You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about.
Will: Why thank you.
Sean: It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.
Sean: So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right?
Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a shit about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
I don’t think someone has to have experienced everything they write about, but if you haven’t done some living, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to come off as sincere and genuine. People can tell when you aren’t into what your writing or if you have no freakin’ clue what you’re talking about.
What does all this have to do with deciding what to write?
The fact is you can write whatever you want, but to make it truly worth reading you need to be able to tie some true genuine emotional experience to the characters and situations you create.
As for the simpler question of what to write when it comes to subject matter, there is no simple answer (oops sorry).
Write what you like.
Write what’s popular.
Write for/to someone (your kids, your family, your wife, a cause).
Really it comes down to motivation.
If you write what you like, then you’ll enjoy every minute of what you’re doing and find a sense of fulfillment like no other, all the while, you’ll rip yourself apart and over-criticize/analyze every word (I know I do).
If you write what’s popular, like vampires or werewolves or sick kids dying, make sure you get in early enough that you don’t hit a wall of over-saturations. Ride the wave, so don’t you get crushed by it.
If you’re writing for someone else, it can provide the type of motivation and inspiration that can push a mediocre piece to the zenith of creation. People have been using the written word to woo and impress for as long as writing has existed, and it can be as good of a reason as any – it can certainly help inspire just what you’ll write.
The moral of this story is to pick a subject that inspires you in some way or it will show. I chose Shady Place for a multitude of reasons: I love the characters, I love the premise, I was able incorporate situations I had first-hand experience with, and I felt like people would like it as much as I do.
For The Couch, it was an opportunity to take a genre I enjoy, but feel like is oversaturated and put a new spin on it while mixing in my irreverent sense of humor. I love it and I’ll make it as long as I continue to love it.
How do you pick what to write?
You’ll know. It’ll feel right, but pick something… but more importantly, finish it.