Friday, March 27, 2009

Write What You Know


When I was in college, I took a creative writing class and we were told to write a short story. I wrote a story about a family living in Harlem. Now, mind you, I had never been to Harlem before but, I had read so many novels by black writers that was set in Harlem that I thought I knew the place. When my assignment was given back to me, it had a grade of "C" on it. Of course, I protested the grade. In those days, I protested everything. If it rained too hard... I protested.

The professor gave me a side-eye and asked me where I was from. I said, "I'm from Philadelphia." He then asked me if I had ever been to New York City. I looked at him like he was crazy. I replied (like it was a forgone conclusion), "Of course I have." Then, he asked me if I had ever lived in Harlem and I told him no. He asked me if I'd even set foot in Harlem. Once again, I told him that I had not. Then, he took a deep breath and gave me one of those looks that I was accustomed to getting from adults and other authority figures back then. He asked me... "So, where are you from? (Didn't I just tell this guy I was from Philly?) I mean, what part of Philly are you from? Me, myself, I'm from South Philly. How 'bout you?"

I never pictured this guy to be from the same part of the world as myself but, once I listened to him talk, I could hear it... the accent. My grandfather used to tell me that he could tell if someone was from South Philly or another part of Philly by the way they talked because the accent was different. He taught me how to listen for it and I heard it in this guy. I responded, "West Philly". He said, "Then, why didn't you write about West Philly? The first rule of good writing is, write what you know."

Up until then, I didn't think anybody would care about my life, where I was from, etc. Then, I thought about all of the women, the things I'd been through, seen, or heard about in the streets, and as a result of that, I realized that I had a wealth of stories to tell, as this blog and my other blog can attest to. I was hard-headed though. I turned in another short story about the first gay heavyweight champion of the world and his trials and tribulations. The result was another "C". So, the professor asked me, "Are you gay?" I said... "No, of course not." Then, he said... "That's right, you're writing about something you know nothing about. What did I tell you? Write what you know."

Next, I turned in a short story called "Haywood". It was about a guy who returned from Vietnam to his West Philadelphia neighborhood with a heroin addiction. This was something I had seen quite a bit and I earned my first "A". I also turned in some poetry that was based on some personal pain I felt following one of my many break-ups and the result was another "A". I was on my way. This teacher, who I can never forget, also told me to live... to have experiences... and that the more experiences I had, the more I would have to write about. I have certainly done some living. I have done so much living that I can fill up two blogs on a daily basis.

So, every time I sit down at my computer to write, I think about my college professor's words... "write what you know" and it spurs me on. This thing called blogging has challenged me and others to create the new literature... to make this a new art form... to make history.

25 comments:

Jillian said...

true story! :)

what better to write and connect with others than through that which you know...it's the most honest form of writing...and people can feel that... :)

hey have you been by to see the award i gave you mister? c'mon!!! lol

CareyCarey said...

You ain't never lied. I took a writing course at Ball State and when we arrived at class we were told what to write and to start writing ...right now. I sucked, I was terrible. One time we were allowed to take home an assignment. When I brought it back, the professor asked me who wrote it, as if it could not have been writen by my stupid a**. Your point ...I wrote about getting caught and punished by my mother for eating cookies late at night when I should have been in bed.

Keith said...

@Jilly Jill- I have been..I tried to leave a comment, but blogger was acting a damn fool the other night and it kept knocking me off the system..I'll be by your site today though..Promise :)

Strongblkwmn said...

That is definitely good advice. I was told the same thing in high school and it's something that I never forgot.

James Perkins said...

You definitely have lived Good brother..and you have a lot to write about..and I for one am glad for it.

Simon Bastion said...

I've always thought when reading Escapades that there is something biographical about your charactors and your stories..I love it.

Toni said...

That's what I love about your blogs
they aren't like anybody else's ,they are so you.

Angie B. said...

That was good advice he gave you...
You are so...well...YOU...and it comes through in everything you write.

Tate2 said...

"Write What'cha know.." could be a great hip hop jam...Good Post as always Keith!

Lisa said...

I'm so glad you write what you know..anything else wouldn't be as authentic.

Vanessa said...

Bravo Keith!!!

Jazzy said...

What can I say Fam? You're an American Original!!

Grover Tha Playboy said...

I'm feelin you on this one...Don't fake the funk, give it to us from where ya from?

Sunflower said...

Live Life and Write...That's the best advice to pass on to any writer or blogger.

Halo said...

If you weren't as real as you are, you wouldn't connect with so many people.

Rich Fitzgerald said...

I always find that my writing is better and flows effortlessly when I write about what I know. However, I force myself to get into the head of a character that I don't know. Even when I take that approach, I try to build their features off someone I do know.

Keeping to that line makes for the best stories. Those are the stories that resonate with readers most, because you write with more passion. Everything is real when it comes from a place close to the heart. The farther you get away from that, the more unbelievable it becomes. Either that or you have a heck of a lot of work ahead of you due to the research, and then you still might not pull it off.

Swaggie said...

That was great advice he gave you.

Sean said...

Great advice you were given..If not for his advice we would be deprived of "Keith's Space " and
"Escapades"..Lolololol-Keep bangin them keys good brother.

Captain Jack said...

So, This is how the future blogger
got his start eh??

James Perkins said...

Hopefully you'll post that story _"Haywood" on "Escapades" one day!

Mizrepresent said...

I kind of agree and disagree with this statement, even though it has been preached to me time and time again. I believe our imagination and ability to create a piece can be based upon the sum of our experiences, and yet take place in another state, country, land or outerspace. It is the human condition that we all know, and this can transpire into any story as long as you do your research and get the facts right. I have wrote detective stories, stories with male voices, and children stories...though i have been a child, i've never been a detective, nor male.

Keith said...

Point well taken Miz...I may start a story with the core of what I know or experience..but I too have written from the viewpoint of women, men,children, etc. But I always start with that basic truth that we all know...the Human condition.

So Nice to hear from you!! :)

A Free Spirit Butterfly said...

Good morning Keith. I think this is one of my favorite posts. I have been told by some that I am too honest, too revealing and all I can say is, "This is who I am." Except for my diaries and journals, I have been quiet most of my adult life. Now that I'm free, spiritualy and emotionally, I have so much to say. One person asked me how do I manage more than one blog. Easy, like you, I have a lot to say and a lot to share. Like it, Love it or leave it. I don't write to get compliments or praise, I write to free my spirit, heal my past and hopefully to help just one person if not two.

Love, peace and blessings for a great weekend.

CurvyGurl ♥ said...

I think it's important to have a wide perspective, which you have. A good writer knows their range of knowledge yet pull from different experiences whether personal or shared. Like you said...it's all about starting with the human condition...along the way we find that there's always some commonality. It's also important for us not to stifle our creative side (Escapades is a great example). Excellent post, as always!

Kofi Bofah said...

This is true.

And I can usually tell when I read somebody's stuff when they are stretching facts because they obviously have no clue about what they are talking about.




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