Writers' exchange runners-up
When it pays to break the 'rules' of writing
Published: October 1, 2004
|In our most recent call for essays, we asked readers to tell us how they've benefited from breaking the "rules" we've all learned as writers, such as "Write what you know," "Show, don't tell" and "Query first." We received more than 100 essays, four of which are presented in the November 2004 issue of The Writer. Six additional essays are posted below.|
The singing subway
by Althea Kaye
Sechelt, B.C., Canada
"Write what you know," said an article in The Writer.
"Write what you know," said the editor.
So I sat down to write what I know. But I found I didn't know very much. So, I did not write.
This changed one day while waiting for the subway in Montreal. As the train came to a stop, I heard a melodic sound wafting through the station. It went Da-daa-daaadaaaa and lasted less than five seconds. I stood rooted, amazed. The train left (without me) and I heard the sound again, but in reverse. I looked up and down the platform for a busker, but there was no one. I wondered about those musical notes for weeks. I'd go for rides just to see if I could figure out from whence they came. Finally, curiosity got the better of me.
I called the subway system office about it. The receptionist said she had no idea what I was talking about. She passed me on to someone in public relations. The man in charge was equally clueless. He transferred me to his boss, who said, in a voice some adults use when speaking to a child, "That's the way it is. It just is."
I thought about this mysterious rhythm for a few more weeks. I asked my friends. I asked librarians. I thought about it when I was waiting for the subway. I asked the other people also waiting if they knew anything about the tune. No one did. Some had not noticed it. Some quickly walked away from me to the other end of the platform. No one really cared.
I cared. I wanted to know. I just wanted to know.
So I called the subway office once again. And I asked, "Can you tell me what causes that musical sound when the trains come and go from the stations?" And, once again, I was passed from person to person. One man even took my name and telephone number. "I'll call you back," he said. But he never did.
So I called the subway office once again. And again. And again. I did this for a week. Every single day. Until--to get rid of me, I suppose--I was put through to the manager himself. "So, you're the little girl who wants to know why our subway cars sing." (I wasn't so little and I was already a woman, but I played along.) "Why do you want to know?" he asked.
"Because I'm curious. Because it's interesting. Because I like music. Because."
"Well. Come to my office tomorrow and I'll have one of my engineers take you around. Would you like that?"
"Oh, yes," I said, as though I was the little girl he thought I was.
The engineer did take me around. He took me into the bowels of the system to show me how the cars were built. He showed me the braking mechanism. He showed me things I did not know existed and really couldn't have cared less about. He explained in engineerese. Sometimes I understood; most often I did not. We went for a ride in the driver's compartment. That was exciting, though the excitement was short-lived--driving through miles of featureless underground tunnels can quickly kill anyone's enthusiasm. The engineer drew plans and diagrams and explained some more about why the Montreal subway sang. It turns out it has something to do with choppers cutting electricity to motors and about magnetic fields that generate vibrations around a reactor.
It was a few days later when I suddenly realized I'd got it. I now knew something. So I sat me down and wrote a piece about the "singing subway." I sent it off to a national engineering tabloid. I didn't know enough to send a query, nor did I know I was also supposed to put my telephone number on the manuscript. The editor wrote back within a week. He wondered whether I had a telephone, accepted my article, and made me a correspondent, in that order.
Some articles in The Writer continue to advise to write what you know. And mostly, I do. However, sometimes I don't. That's because what I know now is how to find out what I don't know.
It's almost as good as knowing.
Write what you don't know
by Roberta Sandler
The teacher of my freelance writing course advised me to "write what you know."
By following that dictum, I soon was selling personal-experience essays about marriage and parenting to "confession" magazines. By embellishing on happenings in my own life and friends' lives, I sold numerous "confessions" to this genre. Although there is security and perhaps more than a bit of confidence in writing only "what you know," writing-wise, I was a one-trick pony.
As a writer, my spirits soared but my confidence shook when the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine called to give me an assignment. She wanted me to write a profile about a promising young tennis player who lived near me and who had recently beat Billie Jean King in a professional tennis tournament.
Uh oh. The article payment was attractive. The magazine was a good credit for me to add to my one-dimensional resume. However, I knew nothing about interviewing. I certainly didn't know how to write a profile. For a hint, I casually asked the editor, "Are there any particular points you want me to cover when I interview Susan?"
The editor gave me a general idea that helped me to formulate a list of questions to ask. I felt that I would get more of a sense of who Susan was if I interviewed her in person rather than by phone. Swallowing my lack of experience, I met with Susan at the pre-arranged time, and sat back on her living room chair as I opened my notebook.
While Susan answered my questions, I perused her living room to get an idea of her tastes, and I observed her facial expressions and how her body and her hands moved.
When I submitted the completed profile to the editor, she called to compliment me. She especially liked the way I captured Susan's inadvertent habit of twirling her hair as she labored over responses to certain questions, and the way I described the decor of Susan's apartment to reflect Susan's low-key personality and her nontennis interests.
This was my introduction to "write what you don't know." It became a mantra, although I attach a qualifier to it: "Research it, and write it well." By writing what I don't know, I have journeyed far beyond the confession magazines. I didn't know anything about writing health, home-and-garden, consumer and travel articles, but I studied many articles about these topics, and I tested the waters, both on spec and on assignment.
If I had adhered to "write what you know," writing would never have become such a vast learning experience for me. I'd probably have stagnated. Instead, by writing what I don't know, I have become more educated, more prolific, more confident, and more successful, and I've interviewed charismatic celebrities and wonderful experts.
I've written more than 1,000 articles and two award-winning nonfiction books, and I've contributed to 14 books and anthologies, based on what I initially knew nothing about. I have no doubt that the biggest favor I did for myself was to swallow my hesitations and to say, "I don't know how, but I'm going to learn and I'm going to do it."
Had I stuck to the "write what you know" advice, could I have written and sold 1,000 confession stories? I doubt it.
The man on the sidewalk
by Beverlee Blair
"There's a man growing out of the sidewalk." Full stop. As I walked toward my bus stop, cold and wet, I waited for more information to clarify what my brain told me I was seeing. "There's a man growing out of the sidewalk three blocks away."
That had not been particularly helpful, and I blinked the rain from my eyes and continued on my way--one block closer, two--waiting patiently for more information. It occurred to me that he was standing on a sidewalk produce elevator and, having just off loaded some supplies to one of the businesses lining the street, had climbed aboard and pushed the button and found himself stuck a couple of feet shy of street level. He was just waiting until the motor started up again. Eventually, it would continue up and up and he would step off the platform and walk away with a story to tell.
I was across the street from him when it became clear that he had already reached his full height when I'd first seen him. His blue nylon coat was open and I could see that from the waist down, he was encased in what looked like a worn, brown leather bucket. He wore neither hat nor gloves. What was left of his hair danced in thin, white wisps on his bare, pink pate, and if he had ever had legs, they were long gone.
The light changed and I started across the street. I had meant to smile at him and say "hello," but he bent forward, put his hands down on the sidewalk and, using his arms like crutches, pinioned his way to the bar on the corner and disappeared inside.
I never saw him again, but he had in that moment been the perfect bait for my imagination, not to be consumed, but rather fed, because to know how he had come to be without his legs that day consumed me. I named him: Josiah Bates. I uprooted him from the 20th century and deposited him on a mountain at the end of the 19th. Telling his story has been borne of curiosity and passion and a worm wriggling inside, still on its hook. It would not be the last time.
Some years later, I found myself walking behind a boy of three or four as he cried out in grief that his grandmother got the dates wrong and they had come too late for an exhibit on the history of the circus. "We missed it," he wailed. "How could you do that?" Where had his passion come from?
Not writing what I know but what moves me has produced some of my best work. The unknown is often the richest and most compelling territory. Now I know more. Now I know better. Now, I have the better part of two novels, Darrow's King and The Last Act of Yesterday. The better part of being a storyteller is finding the story, then telling it.
Tackling the unknown
by Maureen C. Bruschi
Glen Gardner, New Jersey
What do metals, sewing, supermarkets, apparel, cosmetics and tennis sneakers have in common? For most people, not much. But as a news assistant for a publisher of business trade newspapers, I regularly wrote about these and other assorted topics. I learned that "write what you know" is safe and comfortable, but "write what you don't know" is exciting and challenging and can lead to opportunities I never knew existed.
Before I joined Fairchild Publications in New York City, I was a firm believer in "write what you know." I have a son, and watching him grow up inspired me to write for children.
But my writing took a very different path after I joined Fairchild. I started out in a nonwriting job in the news service division. I became familiar with the various newspapers they published, which covered the metals market, supermarkets, home furnishings, women's and men's apparel, and footwear. When the news assistant position opened up, I applied and was hired.
Writing for children and writing for Fairchild could hardly be more different. My boss at Fairchild tossed out the conventional wisdom of "write what you know." He shared his own brand of wisdom with me: "If you are a good writer, you can write about anything." At first, I wasn't sure if he meant it or if he was trying to make me feel comfortable in my new position. I had strong writing skills and understood the principles of composition and form. But what did I know about growth margins, capitalization stocks, polyester filaments, coal strikes and noncellulosic fiber shipments? It didn't take me long to understand his message.
Each assignment at Fairchild was a new adventure. For the metals market, I wrote quarterly and year-end profit/loss summaries for the copper, steel and aluminum industries. If someone had told me that someday I would write about steel companies that were heavily dependent on flat-rolled steel products or why companies' earnings doubled because of the high level of demand for sheet products, I would have laughed.
But it didn't stop there. I spoke to bankers about financing new sewing equipment for apparel manufactures. I took the information they shared with me and wrote on how a loan might be approved or rejected based on the financial strength of the firm.
I also discussed the performance of supermarket stocks with Wall Street analysts. I followed up with an article on how competition caused some chains to hold down prices despite rising expenses.
After speaking to analysts in the men's apparel industry, I wrote an article in one of the trade newspapers on why some companies racked up strong gains in a particular quarter and why others continued to operate at a loss. By interviewing analysts in the cosmetics industry, I was able to write for the women's wear newspaper on how new products, advertising and promotion were the reasons for growth in the domestic fragrance area.
My favorite story involved Katherine Hepburn. One of the trade newspapers had a popular section called "Between the Lines." It consisted of a page of pictures and blurbs about celebrities around town. One evening after work, I was shopping for sneakers and met Katherine Hepburn in a sports store. We talked about how poorly manufactured tennis sneakers caused shin splints (a hot topic if you're a tennis player). As a result of our conversation, I wrote about Hepburn's unsuccessful attempt to buy well-made tennis sneakers. My short story ran as the lead for "Between the Lines" that week.
As I look back on my early career at Fairchild, "write what you don't know" turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I discovered that I could write comfortably about an unfamiliar topic as long as I remembered the following: First, research the topic of the assignment before an interview; second, prepare a list of appropriate questions to ask during the interview; and third, be a good listener.
But what helped me the most was this: Prior to writing for Fairchild, I had a good grasp of the "basics." I had taken courses and made sure I understood the principles of grammar, composition and form. And I am convinced that when you know the "basics," you can write about anything. I guess my boss knew what he was talking about.
Use your imagination
by Joy Fields
Writers guidebooks recommend that contest rules be read very carefully, and that any submission follow rules to the letter and maintain the spirit in which the contest was intended. I've had better luck twisting the spirit's arm just a bit and using a humorous tone to make my entry stand out.
The first writing contest I ever won was a memorial essay contest in honor of a professor of literature. I followed the main premise of starting the essay, "Why I …" but followed with something I don't think they expected: "Why not 'J'?"
Instead of the introspective masterpiece I suspected they were looking for--on why I devoted my life to helping those less fortunate, pursued a career in nuclear physics or became the youngest female to traverse the Antarctic while using my spare time to knit mittens for those less fortunate and complete my nuclear physics doctoral thesis--I wrote lighthearted fare on trying desperately to find a "show and tell" item that started with "I" for my daughter's kindergarten class.
I supported my theme by detailing the only "I" items that I could find around the house, all of which were unsuitable for tucking in the pocket of a Power Puff Girls backpack--ice cubes, incense burner, insect spray. I went on to show how easy my life would have been that morning, had the teacher simply picked the letter "J." I could have sent in a jacket, juice or jelly sandwich. Actually, those were already in said backpack, so "J" would have been an incredible timesaver. I wound up instructing my little angel to simply hold up her empty hands and tell the class her item was "invisible."
I may not win any parenting awards for this, but Professor D's Memorial Contest sent me $50.
My next foray into essay-land was a response to a contest on "Should the U.S. sell arms to foreign countries." I double-spaced, headed each page as requested, kept to the word-count limit and charmed the judges into second place with my theories on why it would be much more economical to sell legs. Think about it--half the time you see mannequins' upper torsos sitting on display tables, so there must be spare legs stored somewhere. Why not just ship those? I think the judges may have been a bit war-weary and ready for a new outlook. Maybe the first-place winner suggested selling feet.
I didn't let my lack of experience in technical writing hold me back from an instructional writing contest. My winning essay on "A woman's guide to buying men's underwear" covered all the requirements of walking a novice through preparation, undertaking and completion of a task in simple, easy-to-follow steps. I began by identifying the signs that the task needed to be performed, including percentage of holes to fabric, count of unfathomable stains and waning elasticity of waistbands. I addressed environmental concerns by discussing disposal methods for the old underwear, using toxic waste drums and strategically placed "Mr. Yuk" stickers. I identified potential bottlenecks, such as the lack of readable size labels or the obsolescence of a favorite make and brand. One judge noted that she particularly liked the advice for seeking legal counsel in the case of a man buying underwear for himself, since we all know what that means.
So, by all means, stick to word counts, use the required format and turn on the spell-check--but use your imagination a little when writing your submissions. Humor has made its way into many traditionally serious venues. How else could you explain the ads in upscale cooking catalogs that explain the many reasons I need a personal torch in my kitchen?
One risky query letter
by Tara McClellan McAndrew
The letter came on a particularly bad day at the office. I was still working the boring 9-to-5 I didn't like, while trying to freelance on the side, in the hopes of breaking into it full time. I hadn't had much luck. Then ...
"Dear Tara: We would like you to write the article you pitched to us and also wondered if you would be interested in being a regular stringer and cover filming in Illinois?" I gasped. It was from The Hollywood Reporter, a Los Angeles daily trade paper that covers the film industry.
Would I! But wait, you don't understand. I didn't go to film school, I live in central Illinois and all the filming's in Chicago, I don't know a lot about filming and, oh my, what have I done?
One of the smartest moves of my now-full-time career, that's what. I had broken the cardinal rule of writing, "write what you know." Instead, I was going to write about what I wanted to know.
Although I'd been to journalism school, my secret love was the movies. I loved watching them, reading about them and dreaming about acting in them. But the latter wasn't bloody likely. So, I focused on journalism and sharpened my news-hunting skills instead.
Good thing. Those skills helped me land the most fun writing gig I've ever had. I didn't know much about Hollywood, but I knew one thing--its power brokers were interested in news about big money and lawsuits that could affect them. One day, while reading my local newspaper, I spied just such a story.
The article said several big studios were suing the owner of a central Illinois trailer park. Crazy, right? Why bother with the little guy? Well, this little guy had allegedly committed numerous acts of copyright infringement by hooking up every trailer in his park to his movie channels. All the ingredients were there: a major copyright lawsuit, major studios and major money, and the added dramatic touch of a David-and-Goliath battle.
I grabbed my market handbook, searched for entertainment trade papers and zipped off a query to one that day. No luck. I tried another one, The Hollywood Reporter. And that was that.
Not only did they publish my trailer-park lawsuit article, but for the next five years I was their Illinois stringer. Even though I didn't have much experience in "the business," I learned what I needed to quickly and even got two front-page articles.
And I had adventures. I got to cover an international film festival in Chicago (sitting at Mitzi Gaynor's table, next to Faye Dunaway's table). I covered a mile-high news conference aboard a 747 over Minneapolis for the premier of Warner Brothers' in-flight video system, personally interviewing the VP of WB in the first-class section. I got on the sets of some productions filming in Chicago to cover them. I got to "lunch" with my editor in L.A. and attend a preview screening of a Julia Roberts film with him on the Fox lot. And, the pièce de résistance, I got to fly to the Arctic to cover the production of k.d. lang's film debut, which was taping in an icy little village on the Bering Strait. Not only did I and a few other Hollywood writers interview her personally, but we partied with her and the whole crew for her birthday. All because of one risky query letter. Sometimes ya just gotta break the rules.
--Posted Oct. 1, 2004