What The Heart Knows
Here’s the thing, my mother was one of the funniest people I ever experienced, although I don’t think she ever knew it. She had a way of finding puns and sarcasm that would crack me up. Mom had a rather skewed point of view. Yet she never laughed at her jokes and sometimes failed to see the humor in what she had just said. If she laughed, it was in response to our laughter. I’m not saying she was unaware; she had a simple way of knowing. She never considered herself smart, although she was, having to drop out of school in the eighth grade to care for her family. Other than her Bible I don’t think I ever saw her read a book unless it was a story to a child. She could draw and paint and arrange road kill into lovely centerpieces if called upon. My mother could sew wedding dresses and decorate cakes, she could repair pretty much anything, and had a green thumb the size of Nebraska. Yet, I never remember her looking for answers or even following directions. My mother just did it. She told me once that she simply paid attention and followed her heart. Here’s what I learned from mom—the heart knows things.
Writers have rules, many, many rules and most of them are made to be broken, except of course for grammar rules which are sacred. One such writerly rule is, “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW.” I believe it’s number three, just under Show Don’t Tell in the rule book. But what exactly does that mean? Write what you know. Does it mean if you are say, a cattle rancher in Texas you should never write about the Spanish Inquisition, having of course never participated in an inquisition? Or if you are a mom with four kids you can never write a lovely romance between two neurosurgeons? Or when was the last time anyone actually slew a dragon? Now don’t get me wrong, if you do happen to be a cattle rancher and you want to write about the Spanish Inquisition, you must do research. You have to take the time to learn your subject matter, that’s different from writing what you know. Research is key to a writer’s success and her ability to create verisimilitude in fiction.
I think the Write What You Know axiom is less literal than some take it. Like Mom said, that heart knows things. I may have never lost the World Series but I have lost. I know about grief and so I can write about it—no matter what the setting. Because grief is grief in suburban American in 2011 just like it was in France in 1923. My heart knows joy and sorrow. My heart has instincts that keep me from making terrible decisions or sometimes plunging full steam ahead into an open manhole. Your brain can learn facts and that’s great. But the heart, the heart holds the real truth.
Now, this isn’t to say that it’s sometimes a good idea to write about the things that interest you or speak to your heart. A cattle rancher might be naturally drawn to writing a Western romance and that’s great. A doctor might be drawn to writing medical mysteries because it’s what she’s experienced and knows the subject matter so well. But I suppose what I wanted to express is that Write You Know is not always about what you’ve done, or where you have visited or what you do for a living. Write What You Know goes deeper than that. Consider what your heart knows and bring those truths to your story. If you’ve known grief, don’t be afraid to revisit it and use those emotions and feelings to heighten your work. If a man has known great joy he can write about childbirth. If you’ve known isolation you can probably write about being imprisoned. If your heart has been broken, you can write about many, many things. Write from where the heart has been.
Joyce Magnin is the author of The Bright’s Pond Books from Abingdon Press including The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow which was named one of the top five inspirational books of 2009 by Library Journal. She is also the author of the middle grade novel, Carrying Mason. Joyce writes a column about middle grade fiction for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and is a frequent conference speaker. She teaches writing to pretty much anyone who wants to learn. She lives in suburban Philadelphia with her son their crazy cat Mango who shares in the editing responsibilities.
Today our birthday guest, Joyce Magnin is giving away copies of Bright's Pond, Blame It On The Mistletoe, Griselda Takes Flight and her middle grade book, Carrying Mason. That's four winners.
Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
Thank you Joyce, for being with us and for your generous spirit!