Why You Should (and Shouldn’t) Write What You Know

Image:© alphaspirit (Fotolia.com)

Every Story Has Been Written

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but your story is not one of a kind. It’s not the first time you will hear this either. Every story has already been told.

  • Man v. fate
  • Man v. man
  • Man v. nature
  • Man v. self
  • Man v. society
  • Man v. supernatural
  • Man v. technology

While you could be discouraged that nothing you write will be 100% original, I say it is actually liberating. If everything has already been done, then everything is fair game. That means you can write about whatever you want! All you need to do is add your own spin. Color your story with your own voice.

Now, all you have to do is decide what you want to write.

Where do you start? People often say “write what you know”. That’s both good and bad advice at the same time.

Write What You Know: The Pros

Let’s talk about the good. Writing about what you know makes you comfortable. It makes you the de facto expert in what you are writing. It gives you authority, a platform. It helps you to build confidence and could even prevent the dreaded writer’s block.

For those of you who don’t know, I have written two books. The first is a self-published book Medicare Essentials: A Physician Insider Explains the Fine Print. The success of that book led to my being approached by a publisher to write Idiot’s Guides: Medicare.

I was able to write on Medicare because I knew something about the subject. As a doctor, someone who takes care of people on Medicare and someone who got paid by Medicare for the services I provided, I seemed the right person for the job. Not only that, I have experience consulting with hospitals about what Medicare will and will not cover. I knew both sides of the story.

So I wrote what I knew. I got a traditional publishing deal. Sweet!

Write What You Know: The Cons

Writing about what you know can get, well, boring. A long line of straight facts can do little to inspire your reader. There will also come a time when you exhaust your material. Because let’s face it, you may know a lot but you don’t know everything.

If I only wrote about what I knew about Medicare, plain and simple, a pretty dry subject, I would not have sold many books. By approaching the material with passion, by appealing to people with what frustrates me about Medicare, about the mistakes I saw people making, how I saw people being cheated out of dollars and care that they deserved, I appealed to an audience. I made myself unique. I stood out, but I could only do that after extensive research.

It is not enough to relay the facts. You have to infuse some of yourself into what you write to build an audience, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction.

You can start with what you know, but that is only a stepping stone. You have to build on it. You have to grow from it. You have to learn new things to expand on that knowledge. You have to add different viewpoints and stretch that material.

Write More Than You Know

I learned so much about Medicare during my research that Verywell.com approached me to be their Medicare expert. Now I get paid to write articles for them every month, which allows me to stay on top of my Medicare knowledge. Add to that my book royalties, and I have a bonafide writing career. My success story can be yours too.

What am I trying to say?

While “write what you know” can be a good way to get your feet wet, what you know NOW will never be enough. You have to be willing to branch out to make it work. You have to be brave enough to push past those boundaries.

Use your life experience to inspire other avenues. Build new worlds. Share your hopes, your fears. Explore your wildest fantasies. Want more, do more, be more.

Writing what you know may jumpstart your writing, but know you are more than that.

Otherwise, plan for a short and limited writing career.

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Image: Image (from left to right): Juliette Lewis, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and Johnny Galecki in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Warner Bros.

The Perfect Christmas Tree

You see it time and again in the movies and on television. Unless it’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or a quirky down-on-your-luck comedy, the “perfect” holiday is always matched by the “perfect” Christmas tree. Just ask Clark W. Griswold from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. He wouldn’t dream of hosting the family holiday without one.

Whether the tree is the star of the show or simply set in the background, it is full and lush. The ornaments are evenly spaced and each strand of tinsel is placed just so. Either an angel sits on top to watch over you with regal elegance or a star lights the room with a peaceful glow.

In the real world, the tree has a bald spot you turn to face the wall. Your dog drinks water from the tree base, your cat jumps into the tree as if it were catnip, and at least two “non-blinking” lights blink out of sync on one side.

“One light goes out, they all go out!” — Bob Rivers, The Twelve Pains of Christmas

Whether you have a live tree or an artificial one, for so many of us, a tree embodies the essence of the holiday. It shouldn’t matter if the tree is “perfect” or not. It is about what that tree represents.

My dad knew that. So it is no surprise he took it to extremes that one year.

Making Your Own Christmas

I am not saying my dad was Clark W. Griswold but then again, maybe he was.

Clark went into the woods to find the biggest and best Christmas tree he could find. It was not enough to go to the lots where trees had already been cut down with price tags hanging on fir branches. Forget about going to the tree farms where you could pick one out yourself and have someone cut it down for you. No, Clark wanted to find a tree that captured the imagination, not to mention one that was free.

Why not go into the woods and pull one out by the roots?

Okay, okay. It was a comedy and Clark forgot to bring any tools to chop it down. Not an ax, not a chainsaw, not even a knife. There is no way Clark could pull out a 40-foot tree out by the roots, but hey, it’s funny!

My dad may not have pulled his own tree out by the roots, but he sure did find us a tree off the side of the road. Way, way, way off the side of the road, if you know what I mean.

In a year my parents struggled to make ends meet, we still decorated a Christmas tree. It had bald spots and sappy branches, maybe even an old nest or two, but it was our version of perfect.

My dad brought us Christmas, after all.

What the Holiday Is All About

We never found out where my dad got that Christmas tree and we never asked. What we did know was that my dad had a chainsaw in his work van, and for the first time ever, he didn’t let us tag along to pick out the tree. The look of shock on my mother’s face when he carried the tree into the house. Let’s just say that told us all we needed to know.

What family doesn’t have a secret or two?

We may not have always gotten what we wanted when we were young, but my parents always managed to get what we needed. My sister, brother, and I were lucky that way. We never went hungry, we had a roof over our heads, and we always celebrated Christmas together.

Sure, like every kid, we hoped for presents, but unlike most kids, we were always satisfied with whatever we got. When you do not have a lot, you learn to appreciate things more.

It was the time together that mattered most. Sorting through the ornaments, each one attached to its own memory. Stringing up cranberries and popcorn to make garland, even if the popcorn crumbled to become an instant dog treat. Singing holiday songs, including my dad’s all-time favorite Feliz Navidad, in out of tune voices. Always, of course, debating who would climb the ladder to place the star on top of the tree that year.

Decorating the Christmas tree meant together time, time to put the distractions of the world on hold and focus in on each other. There is no greater peace than that. That is the only perfection that exists. If only that feeling could last throughout the year.

The Time I Had a Winning Lottery Ticket

Image: Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love (2010), Columbia Pictures

You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

Not everyone identifies with Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling novel Eat Pray Love. After all, few people have a year to spare, not to mention the means to travel to Italy, India, and Bali. At least not with the sole purpose of “finding themselves” after a divorce. Even Gilbert herself drops a hint about the self-indulgence, stating how nice it would be to win the lottery.

“There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint-please, please, please…give me the grace to win the lottery.” This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son-please, please, please…buy a ticket.”

Of course, Gilbert is not literally talking about the lottery here. She is referencing the fact that you cannot win if you don’t play. In life, you have to take action if you want to see change.

Even with the poignant adage, most people would need to win the lottery to have an adventure like Gilbert’s.

Did you buy your ticket yet?

The Lottery Ticket

It was an autumn day. A balmy breeze tickled the trees even as colored leaves clung tight to their branches.

I remember vividly because for two minutes my life changed forever.

My mom sat in the kitchen pouring her second cup of coffee when my dad returned from the convenience store with the local newspaper in hand. He tossed it on the table, and in a rhythm all their own, she scooped it up while he poured his own cup of coffee. Taking the lottery ticket lying on the table, she started comparing it to the numbers posted in the newspaper. One by one, the numbers matched up.

“Oh my God!”

“Mom?” My sister, brother, and I ran in from the living room to make sure everything was alright, leaving the television blaring behind us. I watched her face go from an ashy pale to a flushing pink. I can only compare her grin to the one the Grinch gave when he got “a wonderful awful idea”, only her thoughts would be much more generous and not at all sinister.

“We won the lottery!”

Anyone within a ten-mile radius heard the hooting and hollering. Our dog, a Doberman pinscher, confused by the excitement, took to racing in circles around the table. In those moments, my parents’ debt was paid, we had a new house, we kids were put through through college, everyone had new cars, and a big vacation was planned.

When we realized my dad had asked the lottery attendant to print off a copy of the winning numbers, the energy dissipated in seconds flat. What we were looking at was not actually a ticket at all. In reality, we only got one number out of six on the ticket still sitting on my mother’s desk.

Better luck next time!

The Benefits of If-Then Planning

For a fleeting moment, we had a winning lottery ticket. The next, we didn’t.

We lost what we never had to lose, all because of the instinct to if-then plan. You know, the whole if X happens, then I will do Y. If I win the lottery, then I will yadda yadda yadda. In the end, we were left with nothing but disappointment because our ideas got ahead of us.

Don’t get me wrong. If-then thinking is often a good thing. Planning for the future, to the extent that you can control it, makes sense. It allows us to think about the consequences of our actions before we take them and can help us shape our most promising future.

Option #1: If I work hard on this project, I will not only keep my job but I may get a promotion.

Option #2: If I pour hot coffee over the boss’s head because I do not like this project, I might lose my job.

Psychologists say that if-then planning helps to guide our behavior and can even help us to build “good” habits. More to the point, when we define if-then scenarios for specific goals, we increase our chances for success because we rely less on willpower. Our brains automatically, or subconsciously, follow from your IF to your THEN. You do not have to make any active decisions because the decision has already been made for you.

Option #1: If I write 1,500 words for my novel today, I will reward myself with _____.

Option #2: If I don’t write 1,500 words today, I don’t get to _____.

_____ = Use your imagination!

Who needs self-control when you can trick your mind into if-then thinking?

When If-Then Planning Gets Out of Control

The problem is that if-then planning can slippery slope into crippling anxiety. That can be the case, at least, when you get too far ahead of yourself.

If I work on the project but the boss doesn’t like the results, then I might get in trouble. If I get in trouble, I may have to start over. If I start over, then I might have to put in extra hours and won’t have enough time to spend with my family. If I don’t spend enough time with my family, I might get a divorce. If I get a divorce, I will be sad and will not be able to focus on my work. If I cannot focus on my work, I will lose my job. Clearly, if I work on this project, I will lose my job. I should not start working on the project.

Living life according to a contingency, something that may never happen, can be a sort of self-sabotage. If-then planning makes sense when it focuses on the immediate consequences of your actions, but it can derail you if you march too many steps forward. You need to be strategic in how you use it.

When if-then planning, you need to ask yourself if you are intentionally putting things out of reach. Are you setting realistic goals? Are you making excuses to continue in your bad behaviors?

If-then planning only works if you really sit down and face the hand you’ve been dealt. If you set goals that are inaccessible, goals that rely on luck or chance rather than your own effort, i.e., winning the lottery, you essentially give yourself permission to never do anything. Your THEN will never come to pass.

Yes, it’s okay to daydream. Yes, it is okay to hope, but you have to live the life you’ve got just the same. If there is something you really want out of life, you need to step up and go for it. Start with if-then planning and take one step at a time to reach your goal.

Get out there and buy your figurative lottery ticket.

Pay It Forward with a Slice of Pizza

Image: Rosa’s Fresh Pizza (rosasfreshpizza.com)

Welcome to Live-It-Uary, a place to celebrate life while we live it. Live-It-Uary honors people who show kindness, people who create and inspire, people who do good deeds. Thank you for making the world a better place.

pay it forward pizza
Image: Mason Wartman, Revtar Photography

Working for What Counts

Mason Wartman embodies the American dream.

Born in Venezuela, he moved to the United States where he was raised in the great state of Pennsylvania. He later attended Babson College, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and Management. It didn’t take long before he found himself working on Wall Street.

He left it all behind.

“I quit the best job I ever had. My exact job on Wall Street – supporting sell-side equity analysts as they produced research reports on stocks – was exactly what I wanted to do.”

An entrepreneur at heart, he left New York City to start up his own business, a pizza restaurant, back home in Philadelphia. In December 2013, Rosa’s Fresh Pizza was born, named in honor of his mother, with a second location recently opened in July 2017.

pay it forward pizza
Image: Rosa’s Fresh Pizza (rosasfreshpizza.com)

Pay It Forward

That success alone is worth some applause. After all, starting a new business is ripe with its own challenges. It was what his business did with that success that has inspired an entire community … and the country.

In May 2014, one of his customers asked to pay for a $1 slice of pizza in advance, to put it on reserve in case someone in need came looking for food. Wartman wrote this down on a Post-It, like a receipt, and placed it on the wall. The next person to come in who needed food could take the post-it down and use it to get a pre-paid slice.

Something magical took hold. More and more people started to pre-pay for slices, and homeless people in the community caught word. Where many businesses turn away the poor, Rosa’s Fresh Pizza welcomed them with open arms.

The pay it forward program started small, but after the restaurant was featured on the Ellen Show in January 2015, word spread far and wide. Now Rosa’s Fresh Pizza serves 50 to 100 people in need every day.

What Can You Do?

Wartman inspired a community. The pay it forward program is a show of humanity, nourishing not only the body but the soul. What is especially heart-warming are the stories of those who have benefited from the efforts. Many people who have enjoyed a pre-paid slice have come back to pay it forward themselves. These stories are featured on the Rosa’s  Fresh Pizza website.

Wartman has developed a business model that maintains his revenues, keeps customers coming in, and helps those in need. It’s community service with sustainability.

Are there any ways that you can pay it forward in your own community? You do not need a vibrantly colored Post-It wall to make a difference. You just need some creativity and some heart. Every action, no matter how big or how small, counts. You too can change lives.