Writing What You Don’t Know

“Write what you know” is a phrase that has been following me since I started studying creative writing during my undergraduate years. This phrase would be echoed to death while I pursued my MFA, and don’t get me wrong, it’s great advice, but it’s also the mostobvious advice you could give someone. Of course we have to know something about something to even begin to write about it – so whenever someone says, “write what you know,” it makes me want to flap wildly at that person until I turn into a bat and fly away.

We all start with what we know. I’m not sure it really needs to be drilled into our heads that much because of course when I’m writing, be it prose or poetry, some subjective element of myself whether I’m cognizant of it or not is going to bleed out and into the pages. However, I think there’s something dangerously misleading about solely “writing what we know” because if we’re to live by that phrase, it risks the danger of not encouraging writers to find out what they don’t know. It risks the danger of someone becoming afraid to write about characters outside their own race or culture. I imagine if everything I wrote was forever only from the viewpoint of a white, American woman in her mid-twenties, then those stories would get horrendously boring quite quickly.

I fear the more we propel the notion you can only write what you know, especially to writers just starting their first story, then they will become afraid to write main characters outside of their own genetic make-up. I wholeheartedly believe one of the main freedoms of pursuing writing is to embrace differences, to study and research what we don’t know so we can rise above ignorance and understand how human connections span across the globe. Rather than being afraid of what or who we don’t know, we should instead interview people with different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, etc.… than our own so we can learn, and so we can beautifully craft stories that celebrate diversity.

The thesis novel I wrote for graduate school is currently floating around in market space, so it goes, and when I created my protagonist, she was someone I knew. She is similar to me in appearance and mindset, and a lot of things I dealt with in life are things that I put into her creation. Luckily, not everyone in the book is a white American, but writing that book also made me realize how much I want to grow my ability to write diversity. So, I write this article as a reminder to myself, and to anyone else who is sick of hearing to write only what we know.

Writing should be a celebration of incorporating all people – so yes, writing what you know can be a solid foundation to start with, but do your research, too. Study, research, interview, learn. Writing is a lifelong learning process, which is probably why writing and teaching are the two fields I’m drawn to the most. Writers should fearlessly leap into the abyss of the unknown and learn as much as possible – learning what we don’t know, after all, is what rounds out our knowledges, makes us more competent to participate in social engagements and societal conversations, so it only makes sense for us to continue our commitment to learning about a range of individuals and their unique stories for the sake of our humanity and for our craft.

While we base certain settings, emotions, characters and so forth on our experiences, I hope we move forward in our stories to embrace diversity and to do it well. I hope we take those precious moments of truly learning from one another and craft it into stories worth telling, worth reading. Strive to make the unknown known, even if it makes you uncomfortable at first. We’re all ignorant about something, or many things, but to brush off that ignorance and make the choice not to learn and embrace elements outside our comfort zones only ensures our writing will never reach the highest potential that it can.

So, go write something today. And more importantly, go learn something new.

*This article was originally featured on author Erik Hofstatter’s website here.

Kill ’em with Kindness: Post-SHUWPF Residency Musings

Social media has a lot of benefits, especially if you’re a writer promoting your work or networking. However, social media also makes it easier for people to act like egocentric teenage asshats. I’m not going to pretend the social media SHUWPF uses is error free of such behavior, but for the most part we’re a pretty damned loving group. Wherever there is a group of people, some drama is bound to follow. It’s unfortunate, but at the same time it is inevitable because despite the fact that we’re all writers, we all hold different opinions, beliefs, ideals, and so forth.

For the most part, I’ve avoided drama because I simply don’t like it. I just try to be nice to people and if there’s tension I can’t resolve, I’ll move on. I’ve spent too much of my life worrying about what the wrong people think of me. SHUWPF has been my saving grace because I have finally found a tribe of writers and irreplaceable life-friends that I love to bits and pieces. So fuck drama (unless it is in our fiction). I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to say thank you.

Thank you to the mentors who rocked their modules and critique workshops this term. I learned an amazing amount of information from each module and my notebook is bursting with ideas. You are so, so appreciated. I personally had an excellent critique workshop and am very excited to revise the short story I submitted this semester.

Thank you to my friends who hold religious beliefs that are so different than my agnostic ways of life. You are open and kind and fun. I love hearing about your beliefs and am grateful no one in the program has ever tried to shove something down my throat or convert me. If you do, I’ll probably just hiss and crawl away into the darkness, but I won’t be mean.

Thank you to the veterans in the program. I admit sometimes I lurk near you when you’re having a group conversation about army/marine/navy/etc… stories because I love hearing the tales. You’re fascinating and brave and wonderful, thank you for not minding my lurking.

Thank you all for late nights where we drink too much, sing off key, and laugh at our own beautiful madness. Thank you to those who promised to save me if my teaching module tanked (it didn’t!), and to others who told me what they learned from my slight obsession with poetry.

Thank you for watching the sunrise and just talking because people don’t do that often enough. Thank you for generally being interested in the work of others, for supporting their writing and coming together to help each other be the best we all can be.

Residency is intense. We learn a lot in a small amount of time, and it is amazing we have the energy to socialize at all, so when we do socialize let us remember to do it with kindness. We can’t possibly know everyone’s story and what they have been through, so kindness goes a long, long way folks.

Keep writing. Take a breath. Love something simple.

World Horror Con 2016 Recap

On April 27th I journeyed to Pittsburgh International Airport and went on my first airplane ride ever. Yes, ever. I am pleased to say the flight was simpler than driving through Pittsburgh’s traffic, road work, and closed lanes. Oh, and the car that caught on fire that also held up traffic. Flying itself was something I really enjoyed. The white ocean of clouds was mesmerizing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 2.59.21 PM

Flying over Utah.

The ground below barely seemed real as we ventured higher into the sky. The patches of land looked like velvet squares decorated with impossibly small dots of houses, cars, trees, people, and so on. Flying into Utah and staring out at the mountain caps was simply beautiful. Soaring among the clouds was a breathless, crazy adventure.

Thursday, however, is when the real madness began in Provo, Utah. This was my first World Horror Con and I had such a wonderful time. Attendance was small, (I think largely due to Stoker Con being separate this year and so close to WHC), but the smaller crowd allowed me to get to know people and have quality conversations. Despite my awkward self, I think I networked pretty well and even managed to have an editor of a wonderful magazine ask me to send my poems in. That was absolutely one of my favorite moments 🙂

I enjoyed so many panels and conversations during the con. There’s a lot I don’t know how to put into words so I’m going to highlight some of my other favorite parts below.

*The poetry slam hosted by Linda Addison. It was such a pleasure to talk with Linda and to hear her read her award-winning poetry. The slam allowed me to share my work and hear the amazing poems other writers shared. Poetry is forever my first love and being surrounded by others who share that appreciation toward the art always fills my heart with joy.

*The panels! I took so many notes. Dr. Al Carlisle’s panel on Ted Bundy is still giving me chills. Carlisle interviewed Bundy and shared some fascinating information about him that I have never read about before. Carlisle also played a recording from a conversation between him and Bundy and it’s truly haunting to hear the casual way he called the doctor up and spoke about what he had done…

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.00.11 PM

Title slide from Victoria Price’s presentation.

*Some other excellent panels I attended were Women in Horror, Simulated Slushpiles, Arnzen’s Mutterverse, Victorian Culture of Death (I got so many poetry ideas from that one), Why We Love True Crime, D.K. Godard’s amazingly fun Ballistic Gel Presentation (it was a great stress reliever to slash, slice, and take a hammer to the simulated block of ribs), Victoria Price’s (the daughter of the legendary Vincent Price) presentation on her father, and so many others! Nothing was disappointing.

*Meeting new people was really the best. I had some great lunches/dinners with Mike Arnzen, Jeff Strand, Bailey Hunter, and Bill and Jeanne Bush who’s book collecting skills I admire greatly 🙂

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.03.00 PM

Mike Arnzen, Jeff Strand, and myself. Photo credit to Jeanne Bush.

*I also had a great time chatting (and drinking) with the wonderful Brian Keene (I’ll bring the vodka next time), the fantastic Jack Ketchum (still grinning from meeting him!), the lovely Rachel Autumn Deering, and other fantastic people such as Jason V Brock, Stephen Kozeniewski, Cody Langille, Megan Reed, Connor Rice, Kelly Laymon, and others I’m sure I’ll kick myself for forgetting.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.00.26 PM

Meeting Jack Ketchum was such an honor.

But know if I talked to you at all that I absolutely loved it! Even on my way to the airport I was still meeting new people (hey David Boop!) and adding to my list of authors I must read.

*Also, I managed to fit all the books I got into my carry-on bag which was an impressive moment.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.07.54 PM

Lots of signed books!

Networking is so important in the writing world, and when you’re surrounded by talented, friendly people it really does make the experience smoother. The writers and artists I talked to at the con aren’t just the kind of people you network with for the sake of connections and that’s it. These are the type of people you want to keep talking to, become friends with, and absolutely 100% want to keep up with their work.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 3.09.02 PM

Thanks for the good times, Provo. It was lovely.

Having a support system of fellow writers is essential to being (mostly) sane, happy, and productive. Attending WHC affirmed to me I am in the genre I was meant for. Despite the fond gaze that overtakes their eyes at the mention of death and blood, horror writers really are the nicest people.