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since 2009

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Write What you Know

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At Hennen's Observer we see a lot of poetry, fiction and essays come across our website. Since we are an open forum, we appreciate all of the works as true and honest expressions of their writers, no matter the technical quality or originality. And yet, I have personally observed one particular aspect of writing that bears attention. It is what I call "personal experiential authenticity." Put simply, do you write what you know or what you think you know?

It makes a difference, especially in confessional poetry and prose. To those that have suffered the tribulations or experienced the joys of the writer's subject matter, they will spot the impostors and at the same time, be deeply moved by the authentic no matter its relative technical value.

I will never forget how this was finally impressed upon me some years ago by a short story that I was considering publishing beyond our website. It was about an unwed teenage mother and her difficulties in trying to finish High School at the same time. It was written by a man but his writing was superb and he revealed many insights that I thought were so real as to pass muster with the "write what you know" mantra. How the character went through the internal pain of her situation and how she was received by her classmates was very illuminating. Or so I thought.

That was until I had the article proofread by an associate of mine, who as fortune would have it, had actually gone through just such an experience herself. I was shocked to learn that she viewed the article as hackish and naive. In fact, I believe she was offended at the time. While maybe she overreacted, she did point out certain elements of the story that were simply not true in her case or those of her friends that had gone through the same experience. And then she proceeded to tell me why she felt that way that she did. I was humbled.

It was then and there that I promised myself to never write about what I did not have personal experience with unless I would put forth the effort to properly research my subject matter and have my finished work vetted by those that had gone through the experience, if at all possible. And since then I have instinctively gravitated to the authenticity of personal experience based writing. 

In my next blog post, I will share with you how to improve your chances of being published by relying on your own personal experiences in your writing. Till then, happy writing!