The Truth About “Write About What You Know”

by Francine Ringold

I’ve always disliked the literal meaning of “write about what you know.”  It seems so glib, so limiting.

We know so much more than we think we know, and, at times, we know so much less than we think we know. We look back and read a number of poems or letters or notes that we wrote years before a crisis: divorce, death, change . . . (ahhhh, change).  And we find that we knew it was coming as we wrote but before we acknowledged it.  The knowing was in the subtext, the slight hints, the adjectives, perhaps. The knowledge was there but we didn’t acknowledge it; we didn’t “know” it upfront.

Yet we wrote about it.  It lurked behind and within the words, it snuck in in innuendo and reference and an accumulation of references.

​Or to put it another way: We knew before we knew we knew. (Is this the same as “write about what you know”?)

Or let’s look at this subject another way: Even when writing a memoir, where we use “factual” details, dates, corroborated witnesses, we have to do research, research about what we just jotted down and need to confirm or reject or expand upon. And that research—those facts, details, history—become what we know. We can’t remember the exact date of an event. We look it up. We ask questions. That date leads us to other discoveries, other memories.  If we don’t pass them up, they become part of our flesh and bones and blood. To paraphrase Rilke—not until they turn to blood within us can we write one line . . . one true word.

Moreover, there are often those tricky certainties: We know, we think we know, what is in the palm of our hand.  Then we look at it, really look at it and that palm, those lines become branches to other places and other times.

One writes a memoir about what is known and in the process of writing one discovers that the known is questionable, is proved false, needs further exploration.  For example, one remembers a seemingly casual incident: I am twelve years old, holding my aunt’s hand, walking in Grand Central Station. She meets a tall, dark man. She is startled. She knew him some time ago, she says. There is an acknowledgment of my presence, a strange exchange of nods and glances. Then they say goodbye.  My aunt walks faster.

Why do I remember these tiny, seemingly insignificant moments?  Why do I question them now when I am no longer a child but 84 years old? Why was my aunt so upset?  Why did the man look at me so inquiringly? And so the brain whirls.

In that spiral the mind and body picks up bits and pieces of other unanswered questions. For example, at my aunt’s funeral, after I had given a eulogy where I ended with: “She was not my mother, she was my aunt, she was my best friend . . . she was my mother.”  Why did my aunt’s best friend whisper to me, “Yes, she was your mother”?

My biological mother, I had been told and always believed, was my aunt’s older sister.  My mother died when she was 38 and I was 8. My grandmother and my aunt had become my family, along with my two cousins, my aunt’s little girls whom I, in turn, cared for.  I never doubted this relationship. Yet I was born in 1934. My aunt, traveling with her mother, my grandmother, and a vaudeville company, came home from Europe in 1934. Why did she come home? She was booked to go directly to Australia from England. Grandmother said it was because she had insisted on seeing her other daughter’s newborn child.

Questions remain. Possible answers become the facts we add to our narrative, become what we know. What we know and can write about because what the few facts and memories and imagination have confirmed chill our bones and “make our hair stand on end,” as Hamlet and others have said.

Without imagination, nothing in the world could be meaningful.  Without imagination, we could never make sense of our experience.  Without imagination, we could never reason toward knowledge, toward reality.*  

As with everything in life and writing, there are no simple answers, no absolutes. We can write about anything if we apply research, knowledge, memory, touch, taste, details, and imagination in our quest for knowledge and expression.

*The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, Mark Johnson, 1987,  The University of Chicago Press, explores the central role of human imagination in all meaning, understanding, and reasoning.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.


Summer Reads: Four Short Story Collections

by Helen Patterson

Summer is here! In Oklahoma, as the temperatures soar, it is a good time to head somewhere air-conditioned and read a good book. If you’re looking for something a little darker and more philosophical than the average summer read but you don’t want to commit to a full novel, have you considered a short story collection? It’s a great way to read a new author and learn about their depth and range without committing to a full work. Below are four suggestions and a brief description of some of the more interesting stories.

In Michael Andreasen’s The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, the bizarre and mystical interrupt the everyday to reveal the smallness of human comprehension and the uselessness of human endeavors. In “Our Fathers at Sea,” the old are shipped off in a crate to the middle of the ocean to be mercifully euthanized and sunk beneath the waves. The whole ceremony is a combination of ridiculous carnival and patriotic holiday, and it highlights how hard it is for families to connect with each other and how children will never remember us as we would like to be remembered. In “Jenny,” Douglas, the brother and caretaker of his sister, the title character, who lives without a head or most of her brain, finds himself unable to comprehend her response to a sexual assault. He realizes that Jenny is unknowable not because she is disabled but because she exists separately from him.

Anjali Sachdeva’s first collection, All the Names They Used for God, contains one of the most chilling stories I have ever read. “Manus” follows the aftermath of an alien invasion of Earth in which the entire human population is having their hands replaced with metallic ones, in a process colloquially called “forking.” The narrator’s friend refuses to be altered, instead choosing complete dissolution of her body on her own terms, becoming a symbol for a new revolution. Sachdeva’s other stories hover around this theme, the fear of becoming “othered,” being made into something or someone else. In the title piece, “Promise and Abike,” young girls abducted, brutalized, and forced into marriage slowly take back their power and gain complete control over their captors, but they lose something of themselves in the process.

 Awayland by Ramona Ausubel is divided into four sections, dealing with human hunger, hope, loneliness, and longing: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles.” Ausubel’s collection contains fewer overtly supernatural or science fiction elements than the others, but an element of magical realism pervades all her stories. The first section, “Bay of Hungers,” offers two of the most interesting pieces. In “You Can Find Love Now” a cyclops crafts his profile for an online dating website. His hunger for flesh and his hunger for love are never quite differentiated, and the reader is left wondering about the fate of whoever responds. The next piece, “Fresh Water from the Sea,” follows a girl and her mother who are reunited after the mother finds herself gradually growing transparent and turning into mist. Here, hunger is again multifaceted, suffusing the piece. The girl and her mother are hungry for connection, but they have spent their lives looking for it in the wrong places and ways, and now it appears to be too late.

The strongest collection I read was Mallory Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, in which Ortberg follows the current trend of updating fairy tales to make them more feminist and strange. In these stories, the protagonists often get what they want—but at the expense of others. In “The Rabbit,” the Velveteen Rabbit does indeed become real—by sucking realness from the boy who loves him. In “The Daughter Cells,” the little mermaid succeeds in gaining human souls and keeping her life after a bloody double-murder. In Ortberg’s pieces, gender and identity are fluid, and the protagonists themselves waver, never quite villains or heroes, but always complex and grasping, attempting to claim, or reclaim, power over themselves and the world. Though Ortberg’s worlds are some of the strangest and least recognizable, her characters are very human and disturbingly real.

Have a great summer, and get reading!

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.


Something I Learned from Working with Young Writers

by Adrienne G. Perry

On Wednesday mornings during the school year, I get up early and head to Travis Elementary School to teach creative writing to fourth-graders. I am a WITS (Writers in the Schools) teacher and I love this job. Loving this work doesn’t make my WITS day a piece of cake, especially not at the end of the school year, when the students are ready to come out of their skins. Still, the work offers deep rewards and is unlike anything else I do. Imagine walking down a hallway, being spotted by a fourth-grade writer, and hearing them say, “Yay, WITS!” with a huge smile on their face—a welcome to warm the chambers of even the coldest writer’s heart.

From 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I move in and out of classrooms, working with writers on simile, creating scenes, or incorporating emotion into poetry and prose. Outside of honing their creative writing skills, part of my job involves giving writing and creative expression a good name. Admittedly, this has been an easy sell for students who generally relish the chance to read, write, draw, and share stories. Some of my students at Travis can take the seed of an idea, plant it immediately, and have a bumper crop within 15 minutes. However, for most of them, and for most of us, productive writing requires considering example texts, brainstorming, and testing the concept together before trying it out on our own.

If I want to teach a lesson on nature-based advice poems, for instance, I need to take these steps: introduce the concept of an advice poem; share and discuss an example; brainstorm, alongside the students, elements of nature, as well as the advice such elements might give; work together to generate a list of associated words. If we’re going with an advice poem from a tree, we might think of terms related to trees: leaves, shade, bark, bugs, oak, maple, roots. From there, the students come up with a few lines based on our list—“always let the wind rustle your leaves,” or, “don’t be afraid to grow deep roots.” Then we share.

Once it looks like students have grasped the overall concept, they move on to repeat the steps and generate their own advice poem. When we take these steps together, confusion gets corrected along the way and students write more thoughtfully on their own. (FYI: Pandas, koalas, guinea pigs, flowers, bunnies, hamsters, koi fish, and butterflies have a lot of advice to give.)

In working with adults, I’ve found writers often feel pressured to create writing that is instantly brilliant, cogent, smooth. They sit down with the expectation that “real” writers are able to bust out a poem or story. Even if they acknowledge “it’s just a draft,” the very act of writing starts out high-stakes. Working at Travis has taught me to invest in low-stakes writing: list-making, freewriting, collage, and mind mapping, among other prewriting exercises, as a way to engage, generate material, and play. In the community-based classes and workshops I teach for adults, I’ve adapted my lessons to include more time for brainstorming. Typically, I lead the workshop through a series of prompts designed to generate ideas before asking writers to focus and freewrite.

None of the above is particularly revolutionary; I realize I’m sharing insights that writers and teachers of writing have given us for years. But common wisdom doesn’t always compensate for the disconnect between our theories and practices. Who doesn’t need, from time to time, to be reminded of a basic truth?

This coming Wednesday is my last day at Travis. This summer, I will move from Houston to start a new adventure on the East Coast. Next year, I will miss meeting a new class of fourth graders, but I take with me the thrill of watching a reluctant writer get excited about a line of poetry. I’ll take with me the pride of seeing their writing (and handwriting!) become stronger over the course of eight months. The brilliant staff at WITS, these young writers, and their teachers have taught me volumes about teaching and writing over the last two years. The importance of pre-writing and brainstorming is just one of the many insights I’ve stitched into my pockets.

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.