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Write What You Know

I wanted to write about spaceships. Tell of the view from the window as our shiny blue world receded behind and new ones rushed forward. Evoke the smell inside a rubbery new spacesuit, the feel of weightlessness, my curls floating past my vision, my breakfast hitting the ceiling of the space capsule. How much more weightless could a cornflake be? I wanted to write of new planets, to test the limits of my burgeoning imagination. I wanted to write.

‘Now’, said Miss Bedingfield. ‘Write about what you know.

What you know? Wasn’t writing supposed to be creative? To open the mind, to let the lanky birds of imagination stretch their legs and fly?

I wanted to write about spaceships, not about home, or mum and dad and my sisters and the Labrador who chewed my doll.. My page wasn’t ready for ORDINARY. I huffed at my desk and chewed the end of my pencil. All around me other children were doing the same. There was nothing exciting or glamorous about what we knew, just the grittiness of life in council housing. Who wanted to write about things they knew?

Miss Bedingfield echoed the wisdom of generations of teachers of writing.

Who can write well of chocolate having never licked it from a spoon, cracked it with their teeth, poured it steaming over ice cream or held it in their mouth as it melted stickily over screaming taste buds? There is no need to be a chocolatier to write of this gift from the gods, but acquaintance is essential. A diabetic who has lost their health to sugar may write an entirely different tale – their experience colouring what they know.

Write what life has taught you, through home and family, through education and adventures, through terrors and toils.

There is sill room for imagination. Tolkien wrote what he knew – that there is good and evil in the world, and that little folks can triumph over giants with tenacity and teamwork. Pat Barker, a woman who wrote of love in the trenches during wartime knew about love – perhaps illicit love. She wrote what she knew, embroidering the edges to tell a story she had never lived with absolute authenticity.

Autobiography is the ultimate in channeling the familiar. Even here, authenticity is almost impossible. Memory is an unreliable scribe, and time may either dull or hone the edges of events long past. I have one very strong memory from my early teens. My recall is photographic. I lie on the floor of my bedroom, my mother kneeling astride me a she closes her hands round my neck and tells me she never wanted me, and I ruined her life. I can smell her anger, and see that the carpet is dirty. I feel the floor pressing up against my back as my mother’s weight presses me down. My younger sister Tracey was a witness. She clearly recalls me being throttled by mum as I stood in the bedroom. We both claim perfect recall; we both speak of what we know – yet one of us is wrong in the detailing.

Miss Bedingfield sat behind her big desk, the clock on the wall behind her ticked slower and slower as she sun slanted through the big windows and illuminated Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’ open in front of her.

I was inspired. ‘Today we have to write what we know. I know there is no such thing as a faraway tree but I love it when our teacher reads it. I know I will be at least twenty before I ride in a spaceship, but when I do, this is what it will look like out the window’…