Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't Write What You Know


Let’s call her Kate (secretly, my favorite name in high school). She’s fourteen years old, completely unaware of life barreling down on her. An idea pops her head. Where does it come from and why? Thankfully, she’s too green to question it.  She decides to write a story about fox hunting. 
She knows nothing about fox hunting.
Her innocence leads her to the library. (These were the days when a Google search was known as the Dewey Decimal System.) 
Kate researches, learns the jargon, the history, smells and sounds of the fox hunt. She writes a brilliant story, fresh with sentiment and overflowing with details. (Okay, it’s a mediocre story, but it’s her first. Give her a break.)

The story gets noticed by the powers-that-be: the editor of the school district’s student magazine, Fledglings. Kate thinks it must be a fabulous story to be published in such an august journal, but the truth is the editor didn’t have much fodder to choose from. Her peers are too bleary-eyed with hormones to worry about arts or literature. Few of them even notice her startling debut, and those only wonder why she would bother.
Kate does get her moment to shine when Mr. Walter Whitehead, English teacher extraordinaire, calls her into his office, something he has never done. He wears a purple silk shirt and his horn-rimmed glasses are attached to a long silver chain draped around his shoulders. Geez, you can't make this stuff up. 
Kate wonders why he wears the glasses, because he never looks through them. They perch on the end of his nose and he peers over the rims. His face is ruddy and flaky. He mouth is either an exaggerated grin or melodramatic frown. Never anything in between. Students say he has a beautiful young wife. Kate doubts it.

He asks Kate in his Shakespearean voice (Walter Whitehead is also the drama teacher) how she knows so much about fox hunting. Pride and fear tinting her voice, Kate tells him about the hours she spent researching the topic in the library. His smile plummets to a frown.

"From now on, you should only write about what you know. That, my young friend, is what separates us from the apes,” says Walter.

That is the end of Kate’s interview. All through math class and part of geography she ponders Walter Whitehead’s attempt at mentorship. She looks at her peers who sit with glassy eyes while the teacher drones on about plant-life in the Canadian tundra. Someone snores quietly. Others agonize over first love jitters and first heartbreak horrors, but with much less panache than Kate gives them credit for. 
Kate feels that now familiar urge to pick up a pen. She opens her notebook. The idea is coming…it’s almost here…yes…She writes:
What do you do with a drunken sailor when she’s your mom?
Because Kate has failed to learn a lesson from Walter Whitehead. Kate won’t write what she knows. She’ll write what inspires, terrifies or thrills her; what makes her clench her teeth or cry out loud. She’ll write words she wished she had said and about characters she wished she knew. And her future fans thank her.

By Kim McDougall
Kim McDougall is the co-founder and video producer at Castelane. She's coming up on her 500th video. Get in on the fun at www.castelane.com. Castelane - For the Prose.


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