Write what you know. And by that, I mean write what you feel.

Posted on Feb 22, 2014 | 2 comments

bird bands

“Write what you know.” It’s an axiom I often follow, but I’m not sure it should be seen as a rule. More important, I think, is to write what you feel.

I was giving a talk the other day to writing students at a local college, and I had told them that I had a tough time writing stories when I was in college. I was intimidated by the other students in my fiction-writing classes, hipsters (or so it seemed to me) who were trying to write in the style of Donald Barthelme (who I hadn’t read) or Virginia Woolf (who I’d read but didn’t yet understand). I felt ashamed of my writing. It seemed plain. I couldn’t gin up any ideas, especially not clever ones. I felt out of place.

After college, I gravitated to journalism.

During the Q & A, someone asked me what changed between college and the time I began writing Washashore, when I was in my forties? What made it easier for me the second time around? Was it simply maturity? she asked. More experience?

Both, I said, and thought for a moment. But also this: the idea for Washashore grew organically—yes, from my life experiences, but more importantly from my feelings about my life experiences. Its inspiration was deeply authentic. It came not from wanting to be a writer but from having a story I wanted to share and an instinctive sense of how and with whom I wanted to share it.

It came from a feeling.

It started with reading aloud to my kids. That hugely pleasurable experience connected me to the way I felt about books when I was a child. I still love books, but when I was 8, 9, 10 and 11 I inhaled them, devoured them, wanted to merge with them.

Now, I realized, I wanted to try and write them. I was probably never going to write for people who love Donald Barthelme. But maybe I could write for me. For my 11- or 12-year-old self.

The story in Washashore grew out of things that affected me strongly when I was a child. I found a dead, banded bird by a stream in the woods when I was walking with friends around age 11, and the mystery of it – who banded it? why? – intrigued me and stayed with me. I read an article about the Martha’s Vineyard ospreys and was moved by the efforts of Gus Ben David to create a better habitat for these once-endangered birds. I loved the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard with all my heart. My parents had a happy marriage, unlike Clem’s, but both of them had experienced loss or abandonment as children, and I grew up with the echo of that in my life.

I poured all those feelings into Washashore. And that’s why it was easier to write than those contrived short stories I produced in college. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than what came naturally to me.

Washashore met with a lot of rejection before finally finding a publisher. It was often called “too quiet,” (or, usually, “too quiet to market successfully”). One agent, and I thank her for her honesty, wrote that she liked it but it was “too earnest” for her list. And to be honest, earnestness is probably something I will always be guilty of in my writing. Because I’m an earnest person. That’s just me being authentic.

Once I realized this, I had a great idea for my new novel. The manuscript is pretty far along, as you know if you read my earlier post about writing the climax. But there is an authentic source of this new story that has as yet gone unacknowledged and that I’m pretty sure I can better tap and incorporate. It may make the book a little more earnest. I also think it will make it better.

I’ve got some revising to do.


  1. Beautifully written reflection. It makes so much sense.

    Sometimes I wonder whether or not I’ll ever be able to “cross over” out of academic writing and toward a vehicle for ideas and feelings unrelated to my job. After reading this post, it occurs to me that the opportunity may come in time, after retirement, when I have a whole new way to think deeply and feel outside of that job. At that point, I might be able to feel my way back toward writing for a previous, hungry self.

  2. I hope so, petimetra! The great thing about writing is it’s a perfectly acceptable second or third career. Nobody can tell you you’re too old.

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