Write what you know?

One of the most commonly asked questions of any writer is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I cannot imagine how tired Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and Nora Roberts are of this question. I’m not even published yet, and I have gotten pretty close to tired of it.

Because it is asked so often, most of us have a standard answer that suits us and our writing style. Mine is that my stories are largely character driven, and usually start with a conversation in my head. When voices start talking to me in my head I talk back, and I’ve chosen to see that as inspiration, no matter what my brother says.

One standard answer that is often very dissatisfying for a starting writer is the title of this blog post. One of the reasons that it is so dissatisfying to hear, “write what you know,” is that many of us read and write to get away from what we know. We read to explore our world and other worlds that were created by great minds. We write to explore new ideas and spaces that we can’t explore any other way.

House wives are famous for watching soap operas and reading romance novels because their own lives are not nearly so seedy and interesting. Half of the people I know have a two syllable answer to the question, “What’s new with you?” So why would we want to be so boring as to write what we already know?

Largely, this is even a saying because of psychology. Humans are inclined to mirror themselves in their creations, whether it’s adding their own nose (or most of his face) to the Mona Lisa, or just putting their own favorite phrase into a piece of dialogue. We connect with our creations to a degree that we put ourselves into those characters and situations whether we intend to or not. For some, it is a purposeful exercise in self reflection and some it’s just a way to get a walk-on in a blockbuster movie.

Also, one of the reasons why reading is so very interesting to people is because we like to try to get into other peoples’ heads. This might be more of a result than a cause, but it might cause readers who become writers to understand on some level that we need to put something in there that shows our readers a glimpse of our own twisted pathways and dusty corridors.

That’s not even touching the concrete reasons of reliability, originality, good details, authenticity, and accuracy to name a few. And it’s not to say that you have to be a complete expert on something before you can write about it, either. Some of the most interesting books to write are those of discovery, and research is half the fun for a lot of writers. But you should know something about the French Revolution before you write an entire plot and plop a character right in the middle of it.

So when writing teachers say, ‘write what you know,’ we don’t mean that you can only write about working mothers of two who are trying to finish their first novel, or college students who are trying desperately to graduate and finish a thesis, but it’s a good idea to work with ideas and concepts that are not completely out of your realm of expertise. After all, you’re the only you, and your take on something isn’t any one else’s.

Babies – grand, eh?

In case you were wondering about my daughter, here is my mother’s take on the subject!

Kathryn's Opinion

So have you seen the pictures of my grandbaby?

Grandpa and Menolly, the first week of the romance Grandpa and Menolly, the first week of the romance

It has amazed me, really, the amount of emotion generated by one small being. I love them all, in so many ways, and have been lucky enough to structure my life so it includes borrowed grandbabies and elders when I haven’t had any closer to hand. I recommend the practice. My sister, Martha, has dear babies, too, and she calls them her “grandlings”. Other grandparents-in-waiting might adopt that method as well. I suspect many of the shining elders remembered as inspiration were in that position.

Some things are hard to explain, and the rush of emotion that hits me when I walk into the Y preschool to sing for my babies and the rush of emotion engendered by Menolly’s face have become more noticeable at this stage in my life. I cry…

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Back to the Basics

It’s a good idea to revisit what we already know to be true. One of the things that I have been blessed to do in the last two years is take another look at the building blocks of English writing in academia, mostly from a ‘how do I help these students understand what I mean’ perspective. I do think that this closer look at something that I feel like I have known forever has made me a better writer and student myself, and I was surprised to see how often these ideas and techniques came up in my graduate level classes, too.

But now I’ve graduated and have yet to find a teaching job, so what am I doing?

Going back to the basics.

Basics in almost every way. In career ways, I am on a job search like I haven’t done since I was first in the job market. I do have more experience and I have more skills, but the availible jobs don’t seem to have changed much.

Also back to basics in the things I am doing to keep busy and maybe make some money in the meantime. At least basics for me. I am going back to my original idea that if I am going to make money in a creative way, I’d better have more than one creative endeavor. I’m revisiting my novel, for instance, and digging out the notes that I’ve gotten back on it. It’s time for that fourth draft (watch this space)!

I’m crafting again: beadwork, knitting, and crocheting. These were originally taken on as a hobby, but it made sense to try to add that to the list of things I could do to make money. Shameless plug #2: Check out my Etsy page!

We’re planning on doing music again, as well. The summer reading program is about science, which isn’t exactly spot on with our stuff, but we certainly don’t dislike science-y songs, we just need to learn some. And we can get back into songwriting in the schools, as well, with a little more official paper to back us up (as in, my MA, of course).

And then there’s the basics in my personal life: my family. I changed my verbiage just a couple weeks ago. Instead of “I’m unemployed since I graduated.” I switched to, “I’m a stay-at-home mom since I graduated.” I remembered that we were expecting me to have a little bit of a wait before a job opened up for me, and the complete gift that I am getting from this is getting to stay home with my daughter who is almost a year old. Anyone who is a parent says, “Enjoy it, this won’t last!” and I am very grateful to have the time with her while she is small.

And you want to talk about basics, there is nothing more basic than helping a child grow and learn. How do you help the child learn to talk if you aren’t sure how many words the child understands? Can you start a child learning to read before they can talk? How can you help them learn more than one language at once? I expect to get many great ideas and stories for my classroom from this kid.

So for now, I’m focused close to home and working out my building blocks for the next step. But don’t worry, I’ll still have stuff to say here, so you won’t miss out!

(not like you’ve been missing out for the last year while I was busy finishing my degree and having a baby.)

And so it begins…

In like a lamb, except that I’m talking about a period of four months, not thirty-one days. I do hope that the ‘out like a lion’ isn’t going to apply to this school semester, but I’m willing to pay the price for my metaphor if that’s how it works.

But I do have to say, right now I am pretty sanguine. The difference between my nerves last semester at this time and this one are night and day. I’m coasting on a finished syllabus and a bare-bones first paper, and feeling pretty high and ahead of the game. I had to get to finals week (when there wasn’t anything I could do about anything, anyway) before I was this comfortable with my class.

Granted, I have a class under my belt. My greeness this time of last semester does not escape my memory. The sheer number of times I had to revise the schedule is proof enough of how untried my teaching skills were.

But now, after meeting my students and even getting most of their names, I am pretty calm about the whole thing. I’m looking forward to reading their papers, and I think a lot of them are looking forward to writing them. I supposed that’s a boon — this semester the students got to pick which section they were in, so they picked Narrative and Descriptive. Pair that with my penchant for that type of writing, as well, and you’ve got at least one explanation for my unexpected chill.

I know that the semester of teaching was most of it, though. I went through a class, I taught 24 students some things, I passed most of them, and I got good evaluations (except for one, but one outta 24 ain’t bad, right?), and none of them threw anything at me. My boss is happy with me, and so is her boss, and the whole department is still behind me. At least, that’s how it feels. Have I mentioned that I am EXTREMELY lucky to be at the school I’m at?

So, if I could tell my past self one thing, it would be, “This, too, shall pass.” I mean, I’d probably be annoyed with my future self for telling me something I already knew, but it really is the best advice I could give.

Nose to the Grindstone

I’m still at the point in semester (as in before semester starts) that I’m just nervous. I know there’s excitement in there somewhere, but right now, I’m sure that I won’t get anything done, and I’ll get to the first day of class and have forgotten to put on my metaphorical pants that morning.

‘Course, it doesn’t help that I was in denial about the beginning of the school year until about a week ago. Summer lasts forever, and this summer has been long in comparison. “Endless horizon, time hurrying by,” as a great songwriter I know once wrote, and that’s particularly true when you start getting eighty-degree weather in May. We joke that summer is the day we play baseball, then we plan a whole year’s worth of stuff to put in that day.

So now is the time to knuckle down and get myself ready for the school semester. Due to updates, I can’t work on the online portion of my class (which is a lot of fun… like putting together a puzzle!), so I’m working on my syllabus.

The syllabus is a lot of scheduling, a lot of policy writing, and a lot of careful reading (now, I did put that assignment after the introduction, right?). I feel like a lot of it is unnecessary, but I know it’s not. I know that I don’t want to get into that situation and not  have the policy. I know I want to avoid the embarrassment of having the wrong assignment in the wrong place. I want to have everything in clear black and white so there aren’t any possible questions, and we’re all on the same page, literally.

I do know that the Syllabus is really only looked at the first day, and occasionally after that when someone can’t remember what’s due. The only important  thing to the student is the schedule. I also know that most of my students will lose their copy the first day of class and rely on the online copy that I post.

This is okay, especially if I have to change the schedule, something I did a LOT last year. And as long as I have given them a copy, I know that I will be okay whatever I have to enforce. Also, the syllabus is more like a guideline if there are issues… you can’t teach all 25 students exactly the same, and the policy may need to be stretched every now and then.

Really, I just need to take a deep breath, close Jewel Quest, and get to work. It’s nearly painless, and once it’s done, I’ll be far happier about the whole semester. I’ll know that I’ll have something to talk about on the first day, anyway.

But I’m writing a blog post instead…

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