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?