Writing

Write What You Know (Posted on old site: 11/9/2011)

Writers Digest’s website has published an article entitled ‘The Oddest Odd Jobs of 10 Literary Greats’. The article, while a fun look into the earlier years of some of our favorite authors, also made me think about my own odd jobs.

            I have worked as a: sales girl (clothes, music, movies, books, jewelry, house wares, pet supplies, garden equipment, craft supplies); residential and commercial space planner; food server (ice cream/yogurt, candy, smoothies, ballpark foods); party planner; nanny (various ages); administrative legal support team member (secretary, clerk, and assistant). And those are only the jobs I can remember.
            How do we draw upon what we know? This is an often taught lesson that I think many tend to glaze over in their writing. Writing books often tell budding authors to write what they know as they have the best chance of being factually correct in your writing—and thus the story being more believable and relatable. But, how do we do that when we, maybe, didn’t enjoy the odd jobs we’re being told to draw upon? Let’s face it—I’d rather not go back to my days scooping ice cream if I can help it.
            Disliking a job or not wanting to emotionally return to that place doesn’t mean that you can’t draw upon your experiences and turn the situation around for yourself. In order to do this, you must first ask yourself why you don’t want to go back there.
            For me, it was my bosses. The owners of the small, independent shop I worked at owned the business as a side investment—only it wasn’t doing real well at the time—and neither one had been competent enough to effectively run the place. When things didn’t go the way they had imagined, their first instinct was to point the finger at someone else. Surely, their staff who hadn’t been trained, had no previous work history, and were left alone for hours at a time to make impactful decisions for the business they were unqualified to make, were the reason the business suffered.
            Can you tell that I’m not terribly fond of these folks?
            Well, that right there is the reason I should incorporate my personal experience into my work. Discontent can be a wonderful springboard for a fantastic side story. What better way to get revenge on a pair of inept bosses who made my life a real pain than to write them into a fantasy scenario they may or may not survive? Really, as writers we have the opportunity to kill off people we don’t like. In any other profession, killing people would get you 5 to 10 in maximum security; so why not take advantage of this unique perk to the job?
            Not only does writing about our sometimes colorful work history add an element of realism to whatever you’re writing, it can also make a bland storyline a little quirky. All too often I pick up a book about a doctor or a lawyer and the author just glazes over the profession entirely? They’re popular picks in literature and relatively easy to write about, if you’re writing a gloss piece. But who wants to hear their readers say: “Yeah, it was good. No detail though”? Nobody.
What makes Tess Gerritsen so successful is that she was a practicing physician for many years. When she writes medical jargon it isn’t just fancy crap pulled from a textbook. It feels real and genuine because it is. The same can be said for John Grisham and many other writers. Just because they write what they know doesn’t mean it’s boring or that they can’t branch out and stretch their base of knowledge. You never know when the knowledge you acquire from any of life’s experiences is going to be the very thing that grabs readers in your work.
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