by Christine Hennebury
Everyone is familiar with the idea of ‘write what you know’ but have you ever USED what you know as a framework to improve your writing?
One of my favourite things to do is to use my skills and experience from area and try it out in another context. Lessons from Taekwondo have helped me develop my writing practice and approach my work from a new angle. My storytelling skills inform my teaching approaches in Taekwondo. I refer to my weekly schedule as a ‘recipe’, because the flexibility I learned when baking helps me remember to keep my plans responsive to changes in circumstances.
Each of these transfers of skill are based on the fact that I feel confident in my experiences and I want to use the lessons I’ve learned in as many different contexts as I can.
Have you ever thought about how the skills and lessons you have learned in other areas of your life could inform your approach to your writing?
Imagine that you are a terrific cook. You feel confident in your ability to create delicious food. You know how to organize a meal. Your food shopping skills are extraordinary. Following a recipe (or creating your own) is easy. You know how to manage your time to get things to be done all at once. Sure, you have made mistakes in the past but you don’t let a burned dinner stop you from cooking again.
How could you use all of that when you’re writing?
Organizing a meal can be similar to organizing chapters in a book, or scenes in a story. You want all to know that all of the sections will work together – either complementing each other or contrasting delightfully.
Your food shopping skills could be applicable to your research. How can you use your knowledge from groceries to determine how much research you need to make the recipe of your book work?
Following a recipe is not unlike following an outline or set of ideas. You know the sorts of things that need to be included and you can figure out how to best incorporate them.
Managing your cooking time could be similar to managing all the different aspects of your writing. If you know that you will need to write, revise, market, and do a host of other things for your project, you could apply the overarching skills from cooking to create a useful schedule for your writing work.
Coming back to cooking after burning a meal could be a lot like coming back to writing after getting a harsh but accurate review. You can figure out how things went wrong and fix them for next time.
Getting into this mindset might feel a bit unusual, but I find it really useful. Especially when I consider how to apply lessons learned. I have used what I know to help me establish good writing habits but I also use it as a thinking exercise to get me out of writing ruts.
If you’d like to try it, here are a few tips to help you get started:
1) Identify Some Concrete Experiences
Your first step is to list some things you have done that have helped to shape you. Which activities make you feel competent and confident? What areas of your life make you feel like you have learned a lot? How do you identify yourself to others (e.g. mother, dancer, ventriloquist, mathematician)? Are there things that you have to do on a regular basis that you feel are easy or straightforward?
Don’t worry about whether the connection to writing is not obvious, you never know what might work!
2) List the Skills and Lessons Involved
Now that you have a list of possibilities, pick one. Break it down into the skills involved and lessons you have learned as a result. Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you can do it, it is easy. No matter what the activity, it involves a skill set and if you think broadly, you can transfer those skills to writing.
Note: To keep your brain from overloading, take this one set of experiences at a time. You can repeat the exercise for your other skill sets/identities later.
3) Compare That to Your Writing
Your next challenge is to see which skills and lessons from your list have an obvious connection to writing. Ask yourself how those things are like writing. What do they have in common? Where do they connect with your writing practice? How could this skill or lesson be a metaphor for writing?
Even if your list generated something fairly straightforward like being good at shovelling snow those skills can be applied to writing. Snow shovelling involves facing a huge task that can feel overwhelming. It is conquered by just getting started and then continuing with repetitive actions until it is done. Sound like anything else you know?
4) Or Contrast It
Of course, there will be some things that you are good at that will not feel similar to writing at all. In that case, you can use the power of contrast. How is this skill NOT like writing? Why does this lesson NOT apply? How can you use that to your advantage?
For example, if you are really good at responding to rapid-fire instructions, that might not come up a lot in writing. You could say though that using up all the energy in responding leaves you with a more relaxed approach to your writing practice. You know that your words don’t require you to get all worked up so you don’t ‘waste’ energy on that type of thinking while you write.
5) Write Some Advice
Now that you have identified some success areas, outlined your skills and lesson, and compared and contrasted them with writing, write yourself some advice. Pretend that you are writing a column for Katharine to put on the this website.
Entitle it ‘How [My Activity] Makes Me A Better Writer’ and list 4-5 ways that you can use your skills to inform your writing. It can be direct things like ‘being a personal trainer has shown me the value of incremental increases in activity so I increase my word count goals regularly.
Use What You Know
You have spent time and effort to develop your skills in a variety of areas. Developing those skills has taught you some lessons in ‘how things work.’
If you take the time to think of how those lessons and skills can inform your writing, they can help make you a better writer. And, realizing that your successes in other areas are transferable can allow you to bring a feeling of confidence and success to the beginning of a writing project. Knowing how you solve problems in the original context can help you troubleshoot when you hit a snag in your writing.
As a bonus, thinking of how to transfer those skills and lessons takes some imaginative thinking. That’s always a good thing for a writer to practice.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her skills have improved since then. Christine makes up stories, shares stories, and coaches other people who are working on stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Find out more about her at christinehennebury.com or visit her on Facebook .