Young writers hear this adage often from well-meaning teachers.
But while their intentions are good, adults fail to mention to students that often countless hours of research may be needed to inform good writing, whether that writing be nonfiction, historical fiction, or science fiction.
Author Chris Barton recently tweeted about a Hornbook essay by Laurie Halse Anderson wherein Anderson describes the research undertaken to write her Revolutionary War-era novel Forge. In Tasting the Past, Anderson shares how she literally placed herself into primitive conditions in order to experience first-hand the physical hardships of the troops at Valley Forge. She concludes that essay with:
Doesn't sound like writing what you know.
Or does it?
Is it possible that "write what you know" is actually legitimate, yet entirely misunderstood, advice? Maybe those who first shared that adage meant to say, "Know it, by first finding it and experiencing it, and then write it."
I enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime honor of hearing Jane Yolen speak about her classic The Devil's Arithmetic. She described how she became so immersed in research on the Holocaust that she suffered nightmares; she truly experienced the time travel effect portrayed in the novel. (Yolen added that while many deride the use of time travel in fiction, it's a device that effectively serves to place children into the shoes of those who lived in the past. I agree whole-heartedly).
Yet I'm still not comfortable saying, "Write what you know," as I feel I'm limiting students to rather pedestrian topics. But I might start saying, "If you don't know it, don't write it. Not yet. Not until you've researched it, digested it, perhaps even lived it."
That probably won't fit on a bumper sticker quite as nicely, but it seems to make sense.
So what does this mean to us as teachers of reading and writing?
1) We should encourage reading in a wide variety of genres. This will allow students to "write what they know," with some confidence that they actually know something!
Recently, for example, I assigned students a persuasive writing prompt. Not the usual "students should wear uniforms" bit, but a topic that instead required some research. Each student was assigned a predator, and told it was their job to convince the directors of the Hunters of the Wild Lands (HOWL) Museum that this particular animal deserved recognition in one of the museum's exhibits.
The project involved a good deal of fact finding, since students didn't readily know the characteristics or habits of the sixty-three separate hunters assigned. They soon discovered that sorting interesting facts from relevant facts was a challenge, as was dealing with conflicting information from various websites.
In the end, every student agreed that this was some of their best writing, since it was supported by facts rather than opinions.
2) We should engage students in author studies. Many authors led fascinating lives that informed and inspired their writing. Could Gary Paulsen had written Dogsong or Hatchet as convincingly had he not experienced dog sledding and outdoor survival for himself?
Other authors provide models for students through their research habits. Lois Lowry, for example, spent untold hours researching the Holocaust to write Number the Stars. According the Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide for Number the Stars, Lowry's editor mentioned that the author made too many references to the Nazi's shining black boots in her narrative. Lowry considered removing some of the references until, just soon after, she met a Dutch woman who had lost her mother to the Nazis. "The woman, just a toddler at the time of the Holocaust, remembered only one detail about the soldiers who took her mother away—their boots."
Lowry insisted on keeping the passages, stating:
3) We should do our own homework when it comes to research. When teaching the Holocaust, I'm often asked by students, "But why didn't the Jews resist? Why didn't they fight back?" The books themselves provide many explanations. Many Jews didn't resist because at first they believed they were simply being relocated. Others felt that if they cooperated, they would be treated fairly and humanely. Some dared not resist for the harm it would bring their loved ones. They felt that if they could withstand each horrific step along the way, they could survive. Still others simply feared the Nazi uniforms and guns.
Just when students seem satisfied with these explanations, they're surprised to hear me say, "But some did resist." I then share some stories from Ann Byers Courageous Teen Resisters: Primary Sources from the Holocaust. This title, one of four from Enslow Publisher's True Stories of Teens in the Holocaust series, describes how individuals and groups fought back, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently, but always at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. Students are amazed to learn that children their age took action in the face of certain death.
4) We should supplement our content area instruction with nonfiction reading selections. I vividly recall a fourth grade social studies text which encouraged students to "Write a journal entry of a soldier at Valley Forge. Describe the hardships you've endured." Unfortunately, the textbook itself had provided just one paragraph on this topic! How often do we similarly ask students to harvest ideas from their minds, when we haven't given them opportunity to sow the seeds?
Do you know of an author who has truly "lived" their writing? How do you push your students to write beyond what they know? What opportunities do you allow for students to write about their own feelings and experiences, about those things that make them unique? I'd love to hear your thoughts!