Learning to “Write What You Know” by Stephanie Kate Strohm

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They say to write what you know. In my case, my very first “they” was Mrs. Martinez, my fifth grade creative writing teacher. I remember her big earrings, her boundless enthusiasm, her kind editor’s notes in the margins of my journals, her creative writing assignments, and the fact that she had a fondness for dressing up in costumes whenever the opportunity presented itself. Mrs. Martinez was (and still is!) a wonderful teacher who was never, ever boring. But the very first time I heard her say, “write what you know,” I thought she was full of it.

I’d applied myself in a pretty dedicated fashion to my writing career starting in fourth grade after repeated exposure to the 1994 film version of Little Women. Like Jo March, I, too, would be a writer, a bold, fearless, passionate writer. The only difference between us was that I was definitely planning to marry Christian Bale, no matter how many German dudes I met. I spent all of fourth grade filling endless sheets of yellow lined paper with overwrought romantic tales of sword-fighting medieval maidens and time-traveling fourth graders who saved the American Revolution. Whenever we had free writing time in our fifth grade creative writing journals, I filled mine with more of the same. Write what I knew?! What kind of garbage advice was that?! Everything I knew was boring. I was typical fifth grader muddling through life in preppy suburban Connecticut. The greatest trauma I had experienced in life was wearing the wrong kind of shoes with my uniform, and a typical example of a recent high point was winning a free pair of sunglasses at the WEB108 radio station booth at the Taste of Fairfield. Fifth grade me wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and I couldn’t imagine why any would want to read about that. I didn’t even want to read about that.

Mrs. Martinez, bless her heart, did nothing to curtail my explorations into the universe of elementary school time-travel. She is the kind of great teacher who always made me feel like a good writer while cleverly asking the questions that guided me to be better. But I think we would both have been shocked if 29-year-old me time-traveled to a fifth grade classroom in 1997 and proclaimed, “One day, Stephanie Kate Strohm will write contemporary YA romances that are heavily influenced by her own experiences. She is literally writing what she knows,” and then vanished back into the Delorean with Marty McFly.

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With The Taming of the Drew having just been released (wahoo!), I’ve been thinking a lot about writing what I know, because with this book, that’s exactly what I did. The Taming of the Drew is a reverse-gendered retelling of the Taming of the Shrew set at an outdoor summer Shakespeare festival. I spent three summers working at different outdoor theaters, performing in seven of Shakespeare’s plays. They were weird and wonderful summers, and it’s a world I know well. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language, with the possibility of a fresh audience and an empty stage, with the sweet stickiness of s’mores with friends, and the freedom of endless summer nights where the only lights came from stars far brighter than the ones in my suburban hometown. The Taming of the Drew is a love story in the most traditional sense of the term, but more than that, it’s a love story to summer and Shakespeare and everything that means to me. I realized while writing The Taming of the Drew that “write what you know” really means “write what you feel.” I didn’t need to write exactly what had happened to me in order to write what I knew – a true-to-life recounting of my crush on the guy playing Dumain, for example, would have made for the most unintentionally depressing YA novel of all time – but I took everything those summers made me feel and poured it into The Taming of the Drew. I wrote exactly what I knew, and, well, I hope Mrs. Martinez likes it.

 

Stephanie Kate Strohm is the author of YA novels Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink and Confederates Don’t Wear Couture, and The Taming of the Drew.  When she’s not writing, she can usually be found baking delicious pies, knitting hideous scarves, and sneaking her dog, Lorelei, into shops all over Chicago. For more info, like Stephanie on facebook, follow her on twitter and check out her blog.

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