Passion and Knowlege: writing foes or companions?

My Dear Hubby runs a farm implement dealership.  He started at the bottom and moved his way up.  As a teen he mowed the lot.  After college he took care of the lawn and garden division.  Over the years, he worked in parts, sales and service before stepping into the big office.

He earned his position through experience and is a great manager because of it.  He knows the business and cares about it deeply.  His lot always looks fabulous, his showroom floor organized and tidy, his employees perfectly matched for their positions.

During our 17 year marriage, I’ve watched other managers fail miserably at running a dealership.  The number one reason is lack of experience as a well-rounded employee.  They are businessmen who don’t get or care about a farmer’s timeline.  They have no passion for the ag industry, but signed on for the office job.  In short, they are not passionate enough to learn the nuances involved in running a dealership. 

A business degree is a bit like research in the writing world.  It gives a basis of understanding.  It teaches you the facts.  And it leaves you ill prepared to tackle a dealership on your own.  Some things just need to be experienced to be learned.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen discussion in the cybersphere regarding experience versus research.  In the writing world, it is often said, “Write what you know.”  The flipside of that argument is, “Write what you are passionate about.”

Just Jemi asked a valid question on her blog the other day: Are fearful people better horror writers because they KNOW fear?

Regarding tragic stories: Can we effectively portray a character and situation if we have not lived through the tragedy ourselves?

What about disabilities or prejudice or chronic illnesses?  Can writers write authentically without experiencing these things first hand?

I’ve thought long and hard over these questions and have concluded that this is not really a black and white issue.  It is not a matter of running a dealership with a business degree and no experience/passion or running it with all experience and no formal education. 

It is not knowledge versus passion.

Sometimes research/knowledge is sufficient–if it goes beyond google and wiki.  Want to know what it’s like to be blind?  Strap on a blindfold the second you wake up and don’t take it off until you’re in bed for the night.  This can give you the teeny, tiniest taste of being visually impaired. 

Fear?  No amount of research, in my mind, can allow a writer to truthfully write about fear.  “Her heart raced.”  Ugh.  Of course it did.  The physical aspect can be researched until the second coming of Christ.  But until someone has smelled their own sour sweat, felt that trickle of urine as it ran down their legs or tried to reason through the irrational to no avail, a writer will never accurately portray fear on paper.  They will lose the voice of authenticity and come off sounding crass and condescending.

Other topics are a matter of degree.  Does a writer have to be raped to understand the feelings of fear, guilt, shame and hatred that follow a sexual assault?  I don’t think so.  Being the victim of inappropriate touch is enough to elicit those same feelings.  Careful research can do the rest.

And sometimes, the closer a writer is to the topic, the more poorly they write about it.  They have no distance and can’t separate themselves from their writing.  Their stories become agendas.  Conversely, a lack of passion for a topic comes off like a bad blind date.  Everyone is uncomfortable and can’t wait to bail.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that balance is the key and every topic requires a different approach.  The best writing is a combination of research, experience and passion.  Compassion and empathy can go a long way if writers care about their topics.  When paired with solid research, the story thrives. 

A business degree doth not a manager make.  Rather, it enhances the experiences employees bring to the dealership.  In writing, research enhances the knowledge, passion and experience a writer brings to the project.  Without both, we will fail to grasp the nuances that can make or break our bottom line.

The Word from the Woods: Write what you know AND are passionate about.  Use research to strenghthen your experiences, not to bypass them altogether. 

Okay, I’ve blathered on about my opion.  What’s yours?

16 responses to “Passion and Knowlege: writing foes or companions?

  1. I recommend direct research done with people who are experts in the subject you are writing about. Too often writers do the surfing the web thing for research.

    I can give you an example. I got into writing because of all the DIY how to stuff obviously written by writers with no “real world” construction experience. They researched and replagirarized older articles also written by writers with no construciton experience sold to editors who were even more clueless.

    When I write, I write with the voice of authority because I am an award winning contractor as well ans an NKBA trained kitchen designer.

    First write what you KNOW ABOUT and are passionate about. For all other writing assignments, interview people who are experts in the subject you are writing about. skip the surfing the web thing. That is lazy and there is a ton of misinformation on the web.

    Blessings on you and yours
    John Wilder

    • John,

      Your point is well taken regarding the internet as research. There are so many better avenues for research that will garner us a deeper understanding and a more factual basis for our writing.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. If you are in the experience, you cannot write about it. But to know it well enough to express it realistically, you must have experienced something of it.

    Few of us have met zombies, but all of us have met with sudden, unexpected fright. If we only wrote of what we knew in one sense, we’d all have frightfully boring books.

    The imagination can extend beyond what we have experienced to the details of the common emotions we all have felt.

    The human condition is universal. The man alone on the moon feels as lost and beyond rescue as the man washed up on a desert isle.

    Have a great weekend. Come check out my dream entry if you’re of a mind. Roland

    • Roland,

      Great points, all of them. Though I beg to differ on the zombie front. If you met my teens, you might too!

      I love this line: “The man alone on the moon feels as lost and beyond rescue as the man washed up on a desert isle.”

      So true. The human condition is, indeed, universal. Yet it is also very specific to each individual based on their past experiences. I think this is what is so great about writing. We get to explore so many different facets of the same situation.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I will definitely check out your blog.


  3. I agree with you, one must have research but also imagination, also passion. And I think everyone knows what it’s like to be afraid, but it’s using one’s own experience to give a character fear of an unknown situation that involves skill. If my character is being chased by a tiger, I can give her fear, but my imagination has to fill in the gaps, the sounds of the tiger’s paws behind her, the sound of it, the smell, the feel of its breath. I’m not going to get chased by a tiger just to get those details. ^_^

    • Oh, come on. No tigers? Pshaw. What kind of writer are you?

      All joking aside, you’re right, of course. Not all stories can be researched first hand. Nor should they be. Yet settling for a google search is an ultimate injustice to the process.

      Great point!

  4. Very interesting post, Cat. You make me wonder if I chose to write a suspense novel about a woman on the run because of the occasional nightmares I have about someone chasing me. It has never happened to me in real life, thank goodness, but I the fear and anxiety I experience during nightmares is more than enough to keep my main character’s feelings and responses on target.

    • Jemi pointed me in that direction with her post the other day. I think fear is a huge motivator for our writing. I also think we have to understand it first hand to really appreciate it and write it well.

      Hope your nightmares get better. : )

  5. Good point Cate! In P & T the main character is gay and I’m not but can certainly understand how it feels to be trying to find who you are as a young person, to be unsure if the direction you’re going in is indeed the right one. Sorry to equate your examples to that, but it seemed to fit. Hope your weekend is truly spectacular!

    • Lisa,

      I think your equation : ) makes perfect sense. This is one of those situations that vary by degree. You are using your experiences and passion (finding oneself) to propel your story. That you can relate to. Anybody can. As to the homosexuality aspect, I don’t doubt for a second that you’ll research as needed to fill in what you don’t know.

      And I can’t wait til you finish it so I can read…

  6. I think passion is necessary in writing, but you have to write what you know to get the best possible material. It seems most of the time those two go hand in hand, at least in my experience. But, of course, there can’t be a uniform approach to something that varies according to the topic. Great post!

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Chris. I’m like you. I believe there needs to be both to get the most effective story possible.

      I also think it is worth noting that what people often think they know and what is true are usually two different things.

      Hope to see you around!

  7. Passion is everything.

    When I was a kid — as in junior and senior high school — I used to stay up after everyone went to bed and watch scary movies.

    I’d pull the Lazyboy up close to the tv so the whole room was at my back. I’d unlock the back door and turn out the lights and watch my movie up-close, with the sound low so I’d have to really, really listen.

    Then when it was finished, I’d cut off the tv and walk though the entire house in the dark, even the room where we’d had the seance, which may have worked. Sometimes the front door in that room would swing open. My aunt refused to go in there.

    In bed, I would imagine the beast at my light switch.

    I ~tried~ to scare myself. It never really worked. Except for King’s Salem’s Lot. That one scared the crap out of me because my bed-head was at a window beneath a big oak tree.

    – Eric

    • You’re a brave boy, Eric. While I’m not typically a chicken, I don’t tempt my fear like that.

      Passion is huge. I don’t think any writer can do a piece justice without caring deeply about the subject matter. Of course, I may be wrong and someone, somewhere, will point out the best selling author who actually hated little kids, but wrote the most amazing juvenile lit story in the world.

      I guess that’s why there’s always an expection to every rule.

      : ) Cat

  8. Some excellent advice here. We would have a very narrow field to write from if we only ever wrote what we know, but if we are willing to really try to understand the position and to do the research then I think, as writers, we can at least not totally destroy the experience in our writing.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Cassandra,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s well worth remembering. There is so much more out there than what each of us is proficient at and knowledgable about. By tapping into research, we can present a broader range of material to our reading public.


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