For thirty years, the mid-term exam for Dr. McAnelly’s Biblical Literature class was always the same essay question: “Describe the wandering journeys of the Apostle Paul.” So a college football fullback and his roommate decided they wouldn’t study anything else, thereby leaving them more time for other attractive pursuits. Imagine their surprise when the question instead was, “Critique the major themes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.”
Now, imagine the fullback’s surprise when his roommate nevertheless began to write furiously for the next hour. The fullback stared at his blank test paper for a long time before giving up and leaving the room, but his curiosity was so strong that he peeked at his roommate’s essay as he walked past. The first sentence read, “Who am I to critique the words of the Lord Jesus? Let me rather describe the wandering journeys of the Apostle Paul.”
Seasoned authors advise, “Write about what you know.” In fact, you have to write about what you know. Try to write about what you don’t know, about which you haven’t got a clue, and you’ll be staring at a blank piece of paper for a long time. It’s one of the surest ways to contract writer’s block. If you succeed in actually getting words onto the page, your readers will be staring at it for a long time, trying to figure out what you just said, if not why you wrote it in the first place.
Why would anybody write about what they don’t know? Why would people do something like that?
- Because someone important told them to. Essay tests in school are a good example. Your instructor asks you to write about one of the (several) chapters in the textbook that you never got around to studying. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to employ your literary skills to make your instructor believe that you read and understood the chapter. Changing the question rarely works.
- Because what they don’t know seems more interesting than what they do know. Young writers frequently make that mistake. When you move into the cloud of unknowing to write your piece, you’re increasing your competition. In the mid-60s, without having any personal experience with them, lots of American teenagers were probably writing about monsters and spaceships, though these markets were already fully stocked with experienced grown-up writers. None of them wrote about being a real American teenager except S.E. Hinton. So her book The Outsiders got published and their books didn’t.
- Because they value style over communication. Poets sometimes make this mistake. They write about the universal life force, instead of about a tree. Down-to-earth, brass-tacks writing doesn’t seem stylish enough. But uninformed writing is less interesting than informed writing. The details which make writing vivid and readable are missing, like a price tag in a store, or somehow “off,” like a carton of old milk.
Writing about what you know is a cure for writer’s block. That’s one reason why journaling or blogging is so popular among writers. Something must have happened to you today, unless you were dead. Write about it. It didn’t happen to anyone else, unless you’re a clone. Nobody has the same brain or biography as you, so nobody has the same perspective as you. If they do, I suggest you get your own perspective. You need your own. Don’t try to share with your neighbor. That’s cheating.