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Write What You Don’t Know

February 10th, 2010 1 comment

“Write what you know” has always been one of those nuggets of writing advice I tend to avoid. I can see the wisdom in writing what you know if you’re an expert on a popular topic. Otherwise, I think it’s much more interesting to write what you want to know.

Writers tend to be curious folks. My husband calls it “nosy,” but he’s not a writer. We want to know about all kinds of things, from factual (Why do baboons have big, red butts?) to fiction (What happens when I mix this character with that situation?). That drive to find answers, to try and make sense of things, to create a world like no other and invite readers along for the ride – can you do that if you just limit yourself to writing what you know? Maybe for one book, or a few magazine articles. But personally, I’d find it hard to make a career – or sustain my passion – if I only wrote what I knew.

Maybe I’m just weird. Okay, I am weird. But when I think about all the topics I’ve tackled over the years as first an advertising copywriter, then a magazine writer, the ones I knew least about ended up stretching me as a writer, pushing me out of my comfort zone, and, at the very least, giving me tidbits of information useful for cocktail party chatter.

That said, it’s been a long time since I’ve had an assignment or an idea that challenged me, or better yet, that scared me, either because it’s something I know nothing about, it’s something I’ve never done before, or both.

For the past ten years, I’ve been employed as a counselor, and my writing has primarily been for children. I’ve been comfortable in my niche, but lately, I’ve been thinking that there is something more. It’s like an itch, but I’m not yet sure how to scratch it. I don’t know how to get back to writing magazine articles or advertising copy, or if that’s even what I want to do, or should do. Then last week, something happened to shake things up just a little.

Our pastor suddenly became ill. He recently learned that he has cancer, stage four, and it’s inoperable. While he is undergoing five weeks of intense chemotherapy, various members of our congregation are volunteering to take over parts of the service. When I went to sign up, the only spot open was leading Communion. For me, that was the scariest spot of all. I am not particular well-versed – literally – in the Bible. I didn’t feel qualified — at all — to preside over the whole bread-breaking, wine-serving process. Especially when I learned that the pastor would be in attendance that Sunday, albeit as a member of the congregation, not the guy behind the altar.

I could have taken the easy way out and read the script and the Scripture the pastor had so helpfully provided for volunteers like me. But I didn’t want to take the easy way out. I was hungry for a challenge, and here it was, handed to me on a wafer-laden Communion plate.

Once I got past my initial anxiety, I did what I’d always done when faced with writing about an unfamiliar topic: research. I typed “how to lead Communion” into my search and got myself up to speed knowledge-wise, as well as found a tidbit of information I used when writing my Communion message.

This past Sunday, I stood in front of the congregation in a very unfamiliar place – behind the altar – nervous but excited about sharing what I’d written. As with any writer, I wondered at the reaction my words would get, especially from the pastor.

After the service, the pastor sought me out. “It was perfect,” he said. I told him how nervous I’d been writing about something I knew little about, worried that I would get it wrong. He shook his head and smiled. “It was exactly right.”

Exactly right. Exactly what I needed to hear. It’s time again to start writing what I don’t know. I just don’t know where that will lead me. It’s kind of scary. But a good kind of scary.

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