by Lillian Csernica on April 5, 2019
One of the first rules of writing is “Write what you know.” Draw on your life experiences to bring fresh, original detail to your stories. I agree with this. I also believe it’s very important to write about what we don’t know. I am not Japanese. I was not born into the Japanese cultural matrix. That means in order to write about Japan, I have had to do a whole lot of research as well as visiting both Yokohama and Kyoto.
As writers we are often painfully aware of how much we don’t know. This can cause a problem referred to as a “poverty mentality.” Most often this term is associated with how we think about money and finance. I first heard the term used by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones:
“People often begin writing from a poverty mentality. They are empty and they run to teachers and classes to learn about writing. We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it… Stay with your original mind and write from it.”(p30-31)
Sit down and make a list of all the experiences you’ve had that you like to talk about. Then list the ones you never talk about. And the ones you refuse to talk about. Don’t worry, nobody will see these lists but you. Just list the experiences in one or two sentences. You’re taking inventory to see what you have to work with. Here’s my list:
- When I was nine years old, I came face to face with an armed robber in a sewer.
- I helped some Greek Orthodox nuns go shopping for glasses at a mall in Fresno.
- I took a battery-powered submarine ride around the coral reefs off Lahaina on Maui.
- I once died in a car accident. I recovered, but I remember being dead.
- At a steampunk convention, two identical twin female world class kendo masters taught me how to use a naginata.
- I worked as a belly dancer from age 16 to age 18. Jobs included Father’s Day at a retirement home where only the men got to see my teacher and the rest of us.
- When I was 18, I lived in Holland for two months one summer. I met a Dutch soldier at the disco one night. He walked me to the train station. Our goodnight kiss made me miss the last train.
- I answer letters written to Santa Claus that come to the local post offices.
- I’ve been through a Japanese haunted house. Much weirder than Western haunted houses.
- I won a bottle of champagne in a storytelling contest after hours at the Northern Ren Faire.
Part of this is choosing the unusual experiences. Part of this is knowing how to make an experience unusual by the way you write about it. My friends know I have a talent for getting myself into strange circumstances.
Write the stories only you can tell. You will bring fresh wonder to the world!