Write What You Know
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King
For most of my adult life, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I’ve taken every opportunity to write that has come my way, most often in roles and jobs not specifically requiring much writing. I published a few articles in my college newspaper. In my first job after college, I wrote in-depth, feature-length press releases for the children’s theatre I worked for, positioning “Winnie-the-Pooh” as a commentary on loving your body and “A Year with Frog and Toad” as a testament to the power of forgiveness. I clearly needed an outlet.
In public policy school, I found a great new application for my newspaper reporting skills. I loved synthesizing decades of research on a topic down to a two-page memo. I enjoyed the tasks of word economy and objectivity. As a deputy press secretary in the mayor’s office, I voluntarily wrote a white paper on casino gaming. As in, no one asked for it. I recommended we not move forward to legalize table games in state. The regressive nature of the social costs outweighed any potential revenue gain; it was a race to the bottom. Eleven years and who knows how many casinos later, it would appear I was outvoted.
I felt a new kind of joy in writing at NSLA: the joy that comes from knowing what you’re talking about. As I mentioned in “The Less You Know,” I was fortunate to work somewhere long enough that I could speak and write with ease and authority. I didn’t have to look up research citations anymore. I took care to be novel and fresh with everything I wrote, but I typically knew what I wanted to say from the outset and had no trouble building my case. I brushed up these skills recently for an article for American Educator, and it felt great.
As a nonprofit CEO, I had the foreign experience of people offering to write things on my behalf. Although I was often strongly encouraged to give in to ghost writing, I never did. I care so much about words and language. While I love writing for others, having someone else write for me would be like wearing someone else’s glasses. There’s a very small chance we have precisely the same vision.
At the same time I was clutching my keyboard and waving off my staff, I was beating myself up for being a one-trick pony. You see, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I JUST. COULDN’T. WRITE. At least not about anything other than summer learning. For more than a decade I wanted to write a book inspired by my family, namely, my dad’s mishaps and misadventures. I set out to write this book so many times. For whatever reason, I was determined to write it as fiction. I came up with list after list of amazing stories for inspiration, but I hadn’t the first clue how to write a novel (and I still don’t).
I felt so low about the reality that I would never realize my dreams. How could I be a writer if I had nothing to write about? But, then, I’d spend 10 minutes writing an email to my friends to tell them about my own mishap or misadventure, and they’d all respond to say it was the funniest thing they’d ever read and I should really consider becoming a writer. I actually spent time thinking about how I could turn funny emails to my friends into a career, but it didn’t seem viable back then.
In the end, I basically gave up on my dream of creating media and decided to dive headfirst into consuming it. I started reading a ton. I tried to like literary magazines, but I was intimidated. I bought anthologies of short stories and magazine reporting. I started listening to NPR and podcasts incessantly. I read memoirs and novels. Eventually, I started to see a pattern. I started to recognize my own voice consistently in one kind of writing: the personal essay.
Realizing that personal essays were a legitimate genre of writing opened up so many doors for me. I recognized that those stories I love to tell have a place in the world. They are entertaining, informative, and perhaps, therapeutic for others who have experienced similar things.
I decided to try to capture the magic of my emails to friends in essay form. The first essay I wrote was called “How I Know I’m Invisible,” and it chronicled a cringeworthy ride on a crowded D.C. Metro with a couple whose affection knew no bounds. It was much harder to write than I thought it would be, but I was so proud of myself just for writing. Just opening up my laptop and writing.
That same day, I created a Word document entitled “Write What You Know,” designed to catalog the things I could write about with authority to see if it amounted to much. According to me on March 15, 2016, what I knew included:
- Social policy
- K-12 education
- Youth development
- Urban education
- Urban kids and families
- City government
- Pop culture
- Some music, some art, some literature, some theatre
- Business travel
- Being a single lady
- How to search the Internet
- Good food
- Traveling alone
- Barre, yoga, spinning
- Healthy eating
- Canceling a wedding
- Running a nonprofit
With that simple list, I decided my dream was worth it. I started planning the long transition out of one career and into another. What has been so liberating about this transition is that I stopped being so hard on myself. The world needs writers and meaningful content and STORIES. It’s okay if I haven’t read every book or taken every writing class. It’s okay if I never write a novel. It’s okay if my writing isn’t for everyone.
In addition to blogging here, I recently started a personal blog. No one knows the address, so it’s my little secret for now. I’ve realized there is joy and meaning in writing even if no one reads it, and, perhaps in writing for no audience at all, I will find my niche and my purpose. Eventually I hope to launch something for the public, but for now, I hope you will join me in cutting yourself some slack and committing to capturing and telling your own stories, however messy they may be. I can guarantee you someone will love them, even if that someone is you.