I attended one writing class in my life. And the main theme of the class, that
evening was, of course, “Write what you know.” Excellent advise for a
beginning writer, or for any writer, for that matter. There was other scattered
info that night, such as finding our “voice,” which person to write in, how to
gain the reader’s interest at the very beginning of our article/story/mega novel.
All that was a bit too much for my brain… I immediately got stuck on the
“Write what you know” bit. That’s what I learned in the class that evening, and
that’s what I still practice to this day.
The problem with writing what we know, is that most of us, including me, know
only what we experience and feel in our own lives. Writing about that nearly
always saddles us with the stamp of “self-serving,” “ego maniac” and other
unattractive monickers. Yes, some writers do have a big head and are anxious
to let everyone out there in the world know how much they’ve done, how
great they are, why they are different/better from the rest of us. I despise those
types as much as I imagine you do. Yet i fear that I often come off sounding
like a big-headed musician-type who is preaching some fairly commonly-known
crap, thinking we don’t know squat about whatever subject that he decides to
I get it. It’s a dilemma that nearly every writer has to deal with, when they write
about “what they know.” After all, what do any of us really know beyond the
scope of our own experiences, our own memories, our own perceptions of life?
I am consistently boggled by the fiction writers who weave these fantastic
stories that we can’t stop reading. I’m also amazed at those who write
historically accurate accounts of interesting happenings in the past, as I have
a clue of how much time and effort it takes to research most subjects. And
right there is one great reason, in my mind, anyway, of writing what I know.
After all, the research is instantly done, right? And it’s accuracy can usually
be determined only by the accuracy of my memory, of my perception. That
can be dangerous waters, unless one has a healthy, working conscience and
a sincere desire to dispel truth and wisdom as one knows it to be.
For my part, i try to separate my ego from my writing by trying to imagine if
my subject is interesting to the reader… if my subject triggers the reader’s
memory of their own experiences, their own adventures. In that regard, my
writing, hopefully, becomes not about me, but rather me helping you have
some interesting thoughts of your own on the subject. Honest, I never think
I’m teaching any reader anything… only providing my point of view, that it
might possibly be different, and hold a bit of interest for the reader. That’s it!
My point of view is that of a guy raised in a bar in Montana, who left the state
he loved so much to pursue a career in music, and in jazz, no less! Now for
starters this dude has to be a little weird, right? And it’s likely his perspective
on things at this point in his life is going to be at least a little interesting, if not
skewed beyond belief. “At this point in his life?” Yes. I’m 76, live with my lady
love on an island in the great Northwest, and have been retired from the
music business for 14 years now.
Do I miss it? No. Like many who worked basically the same job for 35 years,
I did it enough, and pretty much ran out of “things to say” in the music arena.
And again, like many who are retired, I don’t miss the music but I do miss the
camaraderie of my fellow workmates. Those wonderful, colorful musicians,
recording engineers and jazz supporters make up the precious memories of a
fun career, along with the extreme joy of creating and making the music itself.
My attempts at writing have become an extension of the creative music process.
Creating anything still brings a certain amount of satisfaction, and writing
seems to adequately fill the void left when the music river dried up. Now true,
nearly any creative endeavor is self-fulfilling to the artist, no getting around that.
But why not? On the chance that one’s attempt at something artistic and
original reaches the heart and mind of just one other person, is not the artist’s
intent justified? Buddha thought so. And what if the artist feels exceptionally
good about himself or herself for a bit? Often that’s their only reward, god knows
we don’t support art the way we could in this country. I know for a fact that a
successful career in music in America is as rare as a hen’s tooth. In that light,
a bit of self-satisfaction is, in fact, a small reward for any artistic effort, and
should be al least tolerated, if not understood, appreciated and applauded.
Recently I’ve become aware of the incredibly complex structure of each human
mind. For example, mine… I can’t write fiction worth a damn, I’ve tried and
failed miserably. Yet I can still compose interesting original melodies and
chord progressions, much like falling off the proverbial log. As composing and
writing have many similarities, why can’t i attach my writing imagination to my
composing imagination?? Well, I just can’t. Ain’t gonna happen. Another attempt,
another failure and I’m right back to “writing what I know.” Ah, the human mind…
sometimes brilliant, often disappointing. So many thoughts, so many moods,
so many dreams, so little time…
If you’re interested, here’s a short list of my favorite fiction writers. You’ll know
them. They were, to my mind, geniuses of their craft. At the top of the list,
Tom Robbins. Then Joseph Heller. Ken Kesey. Hermann Hesse. Omar Kayyam.
They are, to me, the same inspirations that Wolfgang Mozart, Aaron Copland,
George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, John Williams and Johnny
Mandel have had been for me over the years. There are inspirational people, and
geniuses, in nearly every field. I’d bet you’ve got yours, too.
I know several friends who would be fine writers, but for whatever reason,
they don’t… or won’t. It’s a mystery to me. I’m an average writer who succeeds
simply by determination and perseverance. These friends of mine have much
to say, and a unique style, if they would simply get on with it. Buster O’Connor,
Rick Gohn… you guys mystify me. Start a blog, for god’s sake! Put something
out there, get some feedback, enjoy the process, feel the satisfaction… c’mon,
boys! Patrick McClellan is a good writer, but he’s too busy painting.
One day at lunch, I asked a fine copywriter in Atlanta, Mack Kirkpatrick,
why he didn’t write a book. He just looked at me for a moment, then quietly
said, “Rather than tell you why, I want to give you a book.” Which he did, a few
days later. It was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Crossing.” That book rocked me
for several weeks, much as Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes A Great Notion” did.
As Mack and I frequently worked together in the advertising world, I saw him
soon after finishing “the Crossing.” .“See,” he smiled, “You liked it, didn’t you?
Isn’t that a great book? Isn’t that great writing? And now you know why I don’t
Well, I didn’t like his answer then and I don’t like it now. Hell, i’d have never
written one musical note if I let Mozart intimidate me that much. I guess it’s
honorable enough to strive to be as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy. But
should that stop Mack from having his own say on things, sharing his own
views? Guess I should defend Mack at least a little bit here… after all, he met
Cormac at the U. of Tennessee, and was instantly intimidated by him. When
Cormac arrived on the Tennessee campus he was already a known writer
and instantly became the darling of the writing circles there, of which Mack
was a part. Mack told me a cute story about Cormac, whose birth name was
Charles McCarthy. When Charles first became a writer, he decided to change
his name to Cormac, as he knew the moniker “Charlie McCarthy” wouldn’t fly
To my knowledge, Mack never wrote a book of any kind. A shame, I thought
he was good. One guy I know who did write, and made it work, was George
Hirthler. I read only a handful of George’s writing, but liked all of it. In his writing
was the first time I ever saw the word “landscape” used in a broader sense.
George was instrumental in the development of a successful company in Atlanta,
and was also instrumental in bringing the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta!
George wasn’t a politician, he was a writer, quick on his feet, and he made his
writing abilities work for him, and for many others! I’m sure George has his
inspirational writers as well, but they didn’t stop him. If anything, they inspired
him! And I’m hoping he’ll check in on this and tell us who they were!
I’m thinking that George probably did nearly as much writing on a typewriter as
he did when the computer rolled in. In any case, the blog was still years away
from being a possibility. I say that to Rick and to Buster, who have the golden
opportunity to start a modest blog. I’m already a big fan of you both… your
perspective on the world, your sense of humor, your individual way of
expressing yourselves… It’s so easy now, to write a bit of your thoughts and
feelings, and put it out there for your friends and curious site-hoppers. And if,
by some supremely weird chance, you are intimidated by, say, me… get over it.
Just write what you know.