Wednesday Writing Exercise: Write What You Don’t Know?


Julia Rothman's Farm Anatomy

Anyone and everyone has been told by a teacher or a workshop leader or an avid Guide to Writing Bestsellers consumer that if you want to be a writer you should “write what you know.” True enough.

The great writer Darrell Spencer, who I was lucky to have as a professor, phrased it differently. He said, and I paraphrase badly, that you have to get your moon in the right sky. Meaning? If your character is an opera singer, she oughn’t be described as “climbing the scales,” when one can only climb a scale. Or if your character is playing basketball and she suddenly yells at the umpire’s bad call. These kinds of writerly biffs reveal that the writer is not familiar with the lingo of the subject. So maybe the advice should be rephrased to suggest that a writer should write in comfortable, natural language.

OK, maybe. But over the weekend my brother and I found this book at the book-lovers’ haven Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC. After falling in love with a farm boy, author and illustrator Julia Rothman, born and raised in New York City, decided to devote herself to learning and writing about the in’s-and-out’s of farm life. And what’s most striking about this book is the degree to which the extensive and detailed research is presented with the curious eye of a child; to Rothman, it’s fascinating that birds fly lower to the ground when a storm’s approaching because the high pressure hurts their ears, or that the average hen lays 260 eggs per year.

My point? It’s good to write what you know, yes, but it’s also good to write toward what you most want to know, from a mind and a voice of delight and discovery. Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life would be a very different book were it written by my great uncles in northern Indiana, where the particulars of farm life are just that, life. Maybe we writers would be well-served to push ourselves outside of our comfortable language and try on words like hay fork, buckwheat, hackles, and harrows.

Today’s Writing Exercise:

For what do you have a fascination, but only a cursory knowledge? Does the language of nautical travel, or gardening, or gourmet cooking, or rock climbing fill you with delight? Make a list of the subjects you wish you knew more about.

Now take yourself to the library. Yep. At all costs, deny yourself Wikipedia. Spend at least an hour with one of your subjects, delving deep, turning pages, making note of the details you find most interesting. Don’t worry so much about remembering everything, skip what you don’t understand, and really cultivate an ear for the language that rings most magical to you.

When you get home, look back at your notes, and write a mini-guide to your subject. Include all the language that excites you, and all the details you were surprised to know. Post your results here.


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