The adage “write what you know” is often pounded into fledgling writers. In my beginning, the trite saying made me afraid to break out of my immediate parameters, to never wander beyond safety. Yet… all these years later, I understand that adhering to what I know, or at least what I can write to with some grounding in reality, challenges me to remain faithful to my authenticity. So, for those who dare to create experiences or seek material outside of what they already have, is that commendable, or is it cheating? And if writers can pull it off, is it a sustainable way to create?
Mine your everyday life for material
Writer Mohsin Hamid thinks fellow writers should be stretching their boundaries while staying true to themselves. “It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know.”
While Hamid is talking about fiction, the analogy applies to nonfiction as well. Rarely do I start writing a piece with nary a direction, but I remain open to the facts, experiences, and perspectives that may shape the narrative in ways I didn’t expect.
We can't all afford month-long writers' retreats or a year to travel the world (much as we may have crunched the numbers on that very thing).
Author AL Kennedy gets her motivation to write by finding everything inspirational. "This means my environment need not change, but my mindset undoubtedly may. And it's really cheap. I'm not saying this is anything like perfect in practice, but if I can approach my life with some kind of interested enthusiasm then it can become inspirational."
Not only is Kennedy's approach cheaper than a retreat in Italy, but it's also a sustainable practice. There have been many times when I've been blocked and stalled, lamenting my utterly dull life. Then, when out for a run or daydreaming on the train, I intentionally engage with my surroundings differently. I notice something within the world I'm already familiar with that is unfamiliar—and from there, a story is born.
Create something to write about
But if inspiration waits for no one, what if we chase inspiration? I came across Jedidiah Jenkins when I was doing freelance work for a big corporate client. After a little Googling, I discovered Jenkins was a social media influencer in the travel and leisure space. I dug a little deeper (Google is dangerous that way) and found that Jenkins biked from Oregon all the way down to Patagonia. What would possess someone to do that? The reason was twofold. Jenkins wanted to write a book and needed something to say that people would want to read. And so he tackled a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Was that necessary? Shouldn't we mine the gold of our imaginations, or spend some time observing our immediate surroundings? Do we need to resort to the extreme and manufacture experiences in order to be interesting?
Shouldn't we mine the gold of our imaginations, or spend some time observing our immediate surroundings? Do we need to resort to the extreme and manufacture experiences in order to be interesting?
In an interview with The Great Discontent, Jenkins says, “I remembered the quote from Benjamin Franklin: ‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.’ I thought to myself, ‘Well, what if I can do both?’ What if I could do something objectively interesting and then write about it?”
Biking from Oregon to Patagonia is objectively impressive, but something about Jenkins' motivation troubled me. His experience is real, but the circumstances manufactured, which made me question the genuineness and authenticity of Jenkins' writing pursuit. What will I, as a reader, get out of this book?
Authentic writing is about fostering a connection
To be fair, Jenkins also wanted to get in touch with his creative side and eschew the complacent path he felt he was on. Will I read Jenkins' book when it comes out? I don't know. On the one hand, I'm sure he's got some crazy stories, but on the other, it was a journey inauthentically pursued. Writers—the best ones in my opinion—write because they say something that contributes to a greater conversation.
No matter who is telling the story—a person, an organization, or a brand—the reader (or customer) must connect with the narrative. CRM platform Kissmetrics writes, “At its essence, a story isn’t really about your company. Your company is the construct, but the goal of the story is to create a connection with your customers.”
And at its essence, a good story, book, or blog isn’t about you, so much as it’s about communicating something authentic about the human experience, relationships, work conflicts, or anything that falls in between. When readers connect with the person on the other side of the keyboard, that’s when the real magic begins.
Jenkins' social presence makes it clear he's connected with thousands of people, but I can't help wondering if the connection is because they see themselves in his stories, or if they like the alternate version of reality he's created. Ultimately, it may not matter. But I'll say this—Jenkins may find his writing inspiration in the long haul, but the long haul is likely not sustainable. I bet his next book takes him a little closer to home.
Rachel Henry is a Chicago-based editor at a communications firm. She spends most of her time reading her way through a giant stack of library books and trying to find the best vacation deals online.