The Myth of #Funemployment

Being unemployed is like a daily battle against the seven deadly sins.

I haven’t had a job in two months, and it’s not for lack of trying. I apply for positions constantly, but while I’ve had a few recent interviews, the only work I’ve picked up thus far has been odd jobs and one-offs. My varied background probably makes me look like a flake (library, tech support, private investigation, editing, social media…), which isn’t helping. The truth is, though, that I’m a total homebody when it comes to employment, and would happily settle down with the right job and spend the rest of my life sharing meals with it while we watch Netflix. Metaphorically speaking.

People seem jealous of my current state of being, and I can sort of see how it might appear ideal. I have a S.O. with a high-paying job, so even though the last of my savings has dried up, I’m still sheltered and fed. I work out constantly and spend a lot of time swimming, concocting new barbecue sauce flavours, and obsessively cleaning. But is it really all that you think it might be?

ENVY

The first thing I did when I stopped working was stop spending. No more shopping, no road trips, none of the obvious things. But even further, no unnecessary expenses. No social events, no groceries outside the necessities, and no driving unless I have to. My last job didn’t pay well and I was already used to scaling back, but now I’m basically a little hermit with decent biceps. While I’m good at keeping busy, I’ve become pretty envious of my friends. All those Facebook posts about nights out singing karaoke and dancing, all the trips and the concerts and the VIP lists and the shiny new things… It’s not that I don’t want them to have all that stuff. It’s more that I’m lonely and worried that I might have to wear the same pair of jeans for the rest of my life.

GLUTTONY

I may work out a lot, but I also eat a lot. At first it was good, healthy food. Now I’m too unhappy with my apparent lack of worth to take the time to prepare meals, while simultaneously eating my feelings. I actually had to go through the cupboards and put all of the leftover Christmas and Easter chocolate into the compost so that I couldn’t make myself sick. I’m obsessed with the Chinese takeout from the nearby food court. Not even a legit restaurant – a FOOD COURT. I’m one glazed chicken morsel away from asking if they’re hiring. My girlfriend is a shift worker, and when she’s really tired it’s easy to convince her that takeout is the way to go. Last week we actually got some while I still had leftovers in the fridge. I’m terrible. And now I’m hungry again…

SLOTH

I’ve been blessed with the ability to be both a morning person and a night person. I wake up perky and bouncy and ready to go, like an aerobic jumpsuit-wearing Olivia Newton-John fairy of mornings. Well, I used to. Now that I have nothing to get me out of bed in the morning, my body has given up. I wake up later and later every day, and the late nights of Netflix and Candy Crush Saga don’t help. How many series have I watched from beginning to end? I’d rather not say. I love Netflix, don’t get me wrong. We have a special relationship that might just be the “forever” kind. Movies and TV shows have always been my soul food, but now they’re more than that. If you ask me what I did today, the answer is probably “lifted weights in front of Netflix, ate Chinese food, and spent a lot of time staring at my laptop screen with a forlorn look on my face”.

WRATH

It might be the unhealthy food and lifestyle, or it might be all of the feels that I’ve been trying not to feel for fear that they are warranted… but my temper has definitely become a scary beast. Messes make me mad. Changes of plans make me mad. People who don’t reply to emails make me mad, and people replying-all to emails make me madder still. People with a serious lack of enthusiasm, people with too much enthusiasm, biting nails, fidgeting, making loud noises in public, the fire truck sirens that go by every ten minutes, my cat sucking his toes right beside my face while I’m trying to write… I’m always one tiny spark away from bursting into a raging inferno of anger. Don’t eyeball my food; that makes me mad, too.

GREED

I MISS THINGS. I miss wanting a new pair of rainbow space kitten leggings and then just treating myself to them. I miss buying food that I’m craving. I miss trying new variations on black liquid eyeliner just to see if there is a better one out there. I miss adding to my collection of really cute boots. I miss buying presents for friends and family, or showing up to barbecues with food and drink to share. Sometimes I just really hate the stains on the dish towels and want to replace them. I know that it’s not right to covet material things, but that doesn’t mean that I can just turn off that part of my brain and never again press my face against the display glass at a shoe store while a tiny bead of drool forms at the corner of my mouth.

PRIDE

This is the most difficult feeling to deal with, and the most constant. There are two ways in which I experience it, and both of them suck. The first surrounds the subject of money. I’ve been independent and paying my own way since moving out at 19 (except in a few times of desperation caused by massive car or cat repairs). Now I have no money but all of the same adult bills and expenses. At the best of times I feel hopeless. My amazing S.O. often tells me that if I want or need anything, all I have to do is ask. I can’t. I can’t ask someone for some trivial little thing. If I don’t need it, it feels stupid, and furthermore, it makes me feel like less of a person to need help. Success is my measurement stick, and I’m getting shorter every day.

Then there’s my employment situation. I’ve had two amazing jobs at the library and in tech support. The only reasons I left were to further my education and potential salary, and to try to find something permanent where I could start leveling up. Unfortunately, it’s been a downhill slide since. The last employer I interviewed with offered $12/hr, which is half of what I used to make. I can’t do it. I can’t be older and supposedly wiser and worth so little. I can’t have worked so hard and taken so many courses (and still owe so much money for them) to be making less than I did at sixteen. My self-worth shouldn’t have a dollar sign next to it, but it does, and I can’t sell myself and all of my experience and skill to a company for less than the cost of a burger and fries.

LUST

If you think after all of that I have any lust whatsoever, you would be incorrect.

Luckily, I’m a total optimist. This is a big bump in the road, but whatever is on the other side will probably be that much better. I’m tired and frustrated from spending so long trying to climb over it, but at least I have plenty of time to build up some wicked climbing muscles.

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Digging For Social Media Gold

Writing for social media is like being a gold digger: you need them to fall in love with you, and then give you all of their money.

Whether you’re writing for a big brand or a small business, you have something to sell – and you need the public to buy it. Engagements are what keep you relevant, and conversions are what keep you employed. If people like your photos of organic food or spectacular abs but they never actually buy the products, you aren’t doing your job. Between battling ever-changing algorithms to keep your posts on top and tuning into your audience’s ever-changing needs, creating content requires a complex blend of creativity, adaptability, and analytical skills.

Because I love lists oh-so-much, here are the top five things I’ve learned about writing engaging content.

1. Talk TO Me, Not AT Me

Arguably the most important factor in gaining engagements is your voice. You know when that guy carrying a clipboard or pamphlet approaches you on the street, and you quickly avert your eyes because you just know he’s trying to sell you something? Social media users are the same way. If all of your posts are product pitches, they’re likely to run away. Social media is meant to be a conversation, not a sales flyer. Listen to your audience, learn what they’re talking about, and start conversations with them about it. Make sure that your posts sound like they come from a human, ideally one that uses the same tone and style as your audience. Scope out your competitors’ pages and make a list of the posts that seem to get the most engagement. Create a calendar that balances product posts with ones that ask questions or share interesting links, funny stories, or other types of content that your audience likes. A good balance might be 3/2, or even 3/1. And of course, always make sure to respond to your followers’ comments and questions.

2. Less IS More

The ideal  number of posts per day varies from platform to platform, but it also depends on your target followers. If your audience is young and spends a lot of time on social media, you should be posting more frequently to stay at the forefront of their minds. If your audience is mostly from an older generation or just isn’t as likely to use social media, posting too frequently will fill up their newsfeeds and come across as spam. Once again, it’s a good idea to stalk your competitors and see what they’re doing that works. And don’t forget to figure out where your audience is spending the most time. There’s no sense posting seven times a day to Twitter if your fans predominantly use Pinterest. “Less is more” can also be applied to the posts themselves. A vast majority of users check social media from mobile devices. Longer posts get truncated to a preview, and have to be really good for users to click “show more”. A better practice is to keep your posts short enough to be seen in full, but sharp enough to deliver the goods. Clever, punchy posts are efficient and totally the way to go.

3. Become A Trusted Resource

With so many factors (or more specifically, so many algorithms) working against brands and reach constantly dropping, it’s challenging to get your content seen by those meant to see it. If people trust you to consistently provide information on a topic they care about, they’re more likely to engage with your content and to follow your page so that they always see your posts. If you consistently produce appealing content (attractive photos, smart posts), you’re on your way. Take it one step further by sharing articles, videos, and other interesting content that appeals to the interests of your audience to show them that you’re one of them. You don’t have to be the original author or creator to gain trust; being on top of trends, current events, and key issues in your industry and sharing that information is often enough to establish you as a trusted voice. It sounds serious, but it’s equally applicable to lawyers, craft breweries, and teenage fashion brands. The goal is for your audience to think of your name first when they want to make a purchase or require a service. People are going to remember a brand that makes them laugh, cry, or think.

4. Tweak It

Whatever you do, don’t get into a posting rut. Your audience is dynamic, and you should be too. Keep checking your analytics to make sure your peak post times are accurate, and that your audience demographics haven’t changed without you noticing. Take note of increases or decreases in engagement on types of posts (links, photos, videos) and respond by changing your content. You might think they should like the latest blog post or link, but the content isn’t for you. If you’re not getting a response, you have to adapt. And don’t be afraid to take chances and learn from your mistakes. If a campaign or promotion is unsuccessful, use the results to make your next attempt stronger and smarter. Posting to any social media platform is a bit of a gamble, and a bit of a dance with your audience. What they like one day, they might ignore the next. It’s up to you to try to stay one step ahead of them, and to constantly be studying their traits and tells. When in doubt, you can always ask them. People love being asked about their likes and dislikes, and while some requests might be outrageous, others might spark ideas for amazing future content.

5. Do What’s Best For YOU

You can read all of the tips and strategies in books and online, but when it comes down to it, you have to do what’s best for your brand, business, and audience. I’ve always established my own peak post times based on studying engagements and analytics rather than going with what the latest industry article says. Those same articles say that video and photos are the most popular types of content, but I’ve worked with an audience that shows way more love to links to informative articles. It helps to always keep in mind that social media is exactly that – social. media. It’s about talking and listening and responding, and selling has to be quietly slipped into the conversation as if it’s an afterthought. You have to put in the hard work to get to know your audience, establish yourself as a trusted name, and demonstrate that there is a real, live human behind your profile photo. It’s that belief in you that turns likes into purchases.

We all know that at the end of the day you’re still trying to get them to pony up the dough. But this relationship will work a lot better if you put in the effort and do a really good job of making it feel like the real thing.

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Choose Your Own Misadventure

The “choose your own adventure” is one of my favourite genres of fiction. It gives the reader so much power, and who doesn’t like power? Instead of risking being swept up in a whimsical fantasy only to be crushingly disappointed by a flatline ending, the reader can choose the entire path the characters take, shaping the twists and turns of the plot and ultimately defining how their story ends. It’s a lot like writing, but without having to do any of the actual creative work.

I’m currently reading “Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse”, by Max Brallier. So far I’ve managed to get to safety twice and been eating by zombies three times. No wait, twice. One time I was being attacked and another character put me out of my misery by impaling me with a pool cue. This book is clearly intended for dudes, with frequent references to beer, bongs, and boobs. The action is violent and gory, the language is coarse, and more often than not you’re going to end up a zombie’s lunch. I love it.

Naturally, it’s also making me want to write my own novel in this style. I sat down and had a good long think about popular themes in entertainment, and blended them with situations in which people would need to make snap decisions. Here’s what I came up with:

The IKEA Games Adventure – The world is a futuristic dystopia, with a huge gap between the social classes. The 1% have gotten rich beyond belief, and the 99% are living in makeshift slums known as “districts”. A group of youth representing the districts is forced to battle it out for the entertainment of the elite. This year’s venue? IKEA. The teens are turned loose in the showroom and readers will choose whether to hide amongst the HAMPEN rugs, fight to the death using RUSTIK flatware, or head straight for the Swedish meatballs to stock up for survival.

Car Chase Shootout Explosion Adventure – Assassins. Mob bosses. Drug lords. Guys with shiny bald heads and accents, and girls in tight clothing who shoot guns and/or do martial arts. Every page in this thriller will be full of fun-loving criminal activity! Readers will choose between petty crimes like drag racing, joyrides, beating up innocent bystanders/the elderly, and public intoxication… or go for the glory by challenging a host of thick-necked bad guys in attempts to rob them of their drugs and money, bed their women, and/or take over their turf. There’s just one hitch: the story takes place in Cuba, and all of the cars are from the 1950s. Drive carefully on those chases, or you might hit a pothole, wreck your ride, and find yourself stranded as there are no spare parts thanks to the US embargo on trade!

50 Shades of Adventure – You are an aspiring model/actress/singer who has just moved from Smalltown USA to L.A. to chase your dream of being discovered. Will you marry an aged millionaire and inherit a mansion and a tiny dog, or will you crash and burn as a server at a dive bar? The choices are yours! Readers will make friends and enemies, and sleep their way to the top (or bottom) amidst cutthroat competitors for gigs/roles, fitness models, surfers, sleazy executives, rockstar lotharios, gay BFFs, and more… And they’ll also choose exactly how far they’re willing to go to get the part in zany scenarios including plastic surgeries and sexual propositions. I highly recommend choosing the path that leads to the clinic when offered in this adventure…

Choose Your Own Free-Range Artisan Gastronomical Adventure – It’s Friday night, and you have a date with a cute, thick-rimmed glasses-wearing, ukulele-playing maker of artisan soaps. You need to impress while appearing effortless in your awkward-before-it-was-cool eccentricities. Readers will make tough choices all night long in this hipster caper-romance. What to wear – skinny jeans and a plaid shirt to show off your clean-eating body, or a bulky and faded thrift store sweater that shows off your eclectic style? Will you dine at a farmhouse gastro-experience that lets you pick your own vegetables and slaughter and pluck your own chicken, or hole-in-the-wall diner with no Yelp reviews that demonstrates your legitimate disdain for the mainstream? Discussions about sustainable living, debates about building your own instruments versus making your own clothing, and other exhilarating decisions await!

1001 Nights of Netflix Adventures – In this adventure, you hold the remote. Which series will you binge on tonight? Readers will delight in thousands of pages containing episode summaries and popular quotes from all of their favourite shows and movies. The only thing more fun would be actually watching them!

Those were just the best ideas. Discarded plots (based on my own life experiences) included “Shortiepalooza Adventure” (in which you are 5′ tall and attend a massive concert, then spend the entire night trying to navigate ways to glimpse the stage), “Dare to Be Stupid Adventure” (in which you have IBS and every meal involves food choices that may or may not result in a violently upset stomach), and “Unemployment Adventure” (in which you choose which Craigslist postings to apply for each day, choose attire for interviews for jobs you’ll never get, and spend a lot of time choosing which YouTube cat video to watch next).

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You Are Here (a short story)

I’m taking my own advice and using the closest inanimate object to stimulate a story: my phone.

*              *               *               *               *               *

Fingers clack noisily on keyboards throughout the office, in every cubicle except one. Aeryn’s hands hover motionless in the air above the keys, her eyes unfocused and her mouth slightly agape. The report she’s been tasked to transcribe is due in an hour, but she can’t concentrate. It’s not that she has too much on her mind; quite the opposite, in fact. The inside of her head, the space behind her eyes that she’s pretty sure is supposed to look like a movie theatre, is filled with a thick, grey fog.

She gives herself a little shake and manages to peck out a few more words. Why is this so hard? Maybe she just needs to stretch. You’re supposed to get up once every hour, according to the Health and Safety Committee signs in the break room. She stands and raises her arms, mimicking the woman in the diagrams. The clacking is louder up here, without the buffer of the soft cloth walls of the cubicle. Aeryn takes the opportunity to look around at her co-workers. They all look so busy, shoulders hunched toward glowing monitors, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Fingers dancing noisily on keyboards.

“Back to work,” a voice says from somewhere nearby.

Aeryn turns and sees her manager, Miles, standing just outside his office door. He’s not mad, because being mad would require too much emotion. He’s just politely suggesting that she get something done. If she didn’t listen, he wouldn’t know what to do. No one would. No one in the office ever disagrees. They don’t even talk. Sometimes they exchange polite words in the break room, like asking where someone got their take-out or commenting on the weather. Otherwise, from the time they quietly sit at their computers to the time they put on their jackets and slip out of the building, they just type.

Even the office itself has no emotion. The cubicles are a light grey cloth, the carpet a darker shade of grey. The walls are an inoffensive ash-tone. White would be too striking; the colour is more like the pale smoke that curls up when you burn certain kinds of wood, wrapping them all in a blanket of apathy. Even the signs in the break room are simple text and black-and-white diagrams on white paper. There are no colourful logos or photos anywhere. The brightest thing in the entire building is probably the red case on Aeryn’s phone. It’s like the owners designed the office specifically to squash any kind of creative thinking.

But creative thinking isn’t why they are there, at work in the office. They simply type up reports and transcribe notes, day in and out. That is the job. It’s a good job, with benefits and retirement plans and all that sort of thing. But sometimes Aeryn is sure that she can feel the greyness still clinging to her, wisps hanging from her clothes, hours after she’s gone home. She sighs and sits down. Just a few more hours.

Her eyes are drawn to her phone, and to the enticing brightness of the poppy-coloured case. They aren’t supposed to use their phones during company time, but no one can see anything from one cubicle to the next. Maybe if she just looks at it for a minute or two she’ll wake up. A few vivid photos shared by friends, maybe a link to a travel site full of images of beaches and palm trees and fiery sunsets. Anything to clear the fog in her brain. She looks over her shoulder, even though no one would ever be standing there because that would imply interaction. She picks up the phone.

Social media seems the quickest way to get a colour fix. Aeryn logs in and scrolls through the news feed, drinking in images of pets, babies, DIY projects, and sports. She feels a spark behind her eyes, but like a damp match it doesn’t quite ignite. She keeps scrolling, searching for just the right thing.

An ad catches her eye. Normally she doesn’t notice ads, and when she does she finds them irritating. This one, though, is different. The image hits her like a cool gust of salty sea air. It’s a waterfall, shimmering in afternoon sunshine, tumbling down into a lagoon filled with coral-coloured rocks and surrounded by a lush, green jungle. The text below the photo is hyperlinked, and says simply “You are here.”  As she peers into her phone she can almost see the water rippling as it cascades over the rocks, feel droplets hitting her skin, and smell the rich, earthy air of the jungle below. Her vision feels alert, focused, awake. She shivers and glances up, and that’s when she sees it.

Drops of water on her arm.

She rises slightly, just enough to peek over the cubicles. No one is looking, just a sea of busy worker drones. She looks up, searching for a pipe or other source of a leak. The ceiling tiles are flat and dry. She looks again at her arm, and the water is gone. Aeryn drops into her chair, feeling the soft tug of the grey cubicle blanket. But the moment her eyes lock on the photo, the sharpness returns to her vision. The water is moving. It has to be. She leans closer. It’s not a gif, her phone’s settings restrict plug-ins. How, then, does it look so real? The logical answer is to click on it and find out. Perhaps the company’s page or site will offer some clue; maybe it’s a web designer offering some fancy new graphics technology. Her finger hovers over the text for a moment. What if… but that’s silly. It’s just an ad. She shakes her head at herself and taps the screen.

A loud rushing fills her ears, and a scream escapes her lips as she is immediately swept downstream.

To be continued.

How to Handle Rejection Like a Boss

Few know the cold slap of rejection as well as writers. We have to learn how to deal with it.

At some point we’ve all been rejected. Declined for a date, dumped by a partner, not accepted to a school, turned down for a job, turned away by a bank, refused at tryouts, dismissed by an aloof pet… the list goes on. Aspiring writers, however, face rejection at nearly every stage of the game.

When learning to print the alphabet, we’re chided for making letters backward or mixing up capital and lowercase. When learning to string words together into sentences, we get a red “X” when the result makes no sense. On papers and compositions from elementary school through university, our grades bomb if we drew the wrong conclusions, didn’t write enough, wrote too much, used the wrong facts, or misunderstood the assignment entirely – and that’s not including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other technical areas in which we can also fail.

Once we start writing for a living (or trying to, anyway), we’re faced with a whole new set of rejections. Our work can be rejected by literary agencies, publishers, and publications. We can also be rejected when applying for writing jobs. The world can seem like a cruel place when everywhere you turn, doors are shutting in your face. The most important tool for survival is the right attitude.

Here are some common forms of rejection, and my expert suggestions on how to handle them like a boss.

NO RESPONSE

You submitted a query letter to a publisher or a job application. Your letter was flawless and free from errors. Your resume? Glowing. You have what they’re looking for. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, you didn’t hear from them. You might start doubting yourself, and feel like you aren’t even worth the time it takes to reply, or worse, to even read your submission. That is the wrong reaction. It’s safe to assume that you are so talented that your writing blew them away to the point of being afraid to contact you, lest you see the weak mess that is their own writing. The job no longer exists, the company no longer exists, and it’s all because of the power of your writing. You should celebrate by eating a doughnut.

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS

You submitted a query letter or job application. It perfectly highlighted your skill, experience, and impeccable writing skills. Then the dreaded form letter arrived – “Thank you for your application/submission. At this time we’re just not that into you.” You might feel hurt that after reading your words, those little pieces of your soul that you laboured over for months, maybe even years, you’re being eschewed with a firm hand. You might feel hopeless, because if your skills aren’t good enough for a job that seemed made for you, what’s left? That is the wrong reaction. Someone in charge of hiring saw how insanely talented you are, and feels threatened. They don’t want you around because your talent would outshine people and put their jobs in danger. You should celebrate by eating a strudel.

YOU’RE TOO GOOD FOR US. NO REALLY.

You submitted a job application, maybe even had an interview. You wouldn’t have done so if you didn’t want this job, possibly even need it. You have the skills, you have the experience, and you would be a huge asset to the company. Yet for some reason, they turn you down and say that you’re overqualified, too experienced, or “might not be satisfied/be bored” with the position. Unless you were demanding more than the stated rate of pay due to your experience, this is ridiculous. What kind of company doesn’t want the most highly skilled employees in every position? And how did they know that you wouldn’t be satisfied? Wait, can they read your mind? This company is clearly using some kind of Big Brother mind-reading probe, and it’s a good thing you’re not getting involved. You should celebrate by eating a cupcake.

COME BACK WHEN YOU’RE BETTER

You submitted a query letter or sample chapter. The publisher or literary agency read your work, and after an agonizingly long time, you got a letter back. This letter is worse than the others, because it specifically names everything they didn’t like about your work, why it’s not a good fit for the company, and possibly what you need to do to be “better”. Ouch. You might dissolve into tears, feeling every criticism like a punch in the stomach. You might get angry and defensive, feeling like their comments are untrue, and wondering who died and made them the bosses of the literary world. You might just stare into space for hours, wondering what your life means when you aren’t even good at the thing you love most. These are all valid reactions, but I have a better one.

Step one: Eat your feelings. I recommend an entire cheesecake (and a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine, if that’s your thing).

Step two: Decide how important this company is to you, and compare it to the value you place on making compromises with your work. If you really want to be picked up by this publisher or agency, and if you’re willing to make the suggested changes, go for it. But if the publisher isn’t the perfect fit, or if you feel too strongly about the impact the suggested changes would have on your work, don’t do it. Either way, you were clearly so dazzlingly awesome that they took the time to read your work and to write you back, and that deserves another round!

The bottom line is that you don’t have to “take” rejection. If you can reject rejection, or better yet, turn it into a celebration that includes pelvic-thrusting cats, the world will seem a lot less bleak.

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Writing What You Know

What does it mean to “write what you know”?

Despite rumours that Mark Twain spoke those famous words, there’s a general consensus that no one actually knows their origin. Classes of aspiring writers have been taught that this is the key to producing your best work. Novels, poems, and plays have been written using these words as a golden rule. Entire careers have been based on this profound adage, yet apparently we’ll never know who deserves the credit.

There are, however, many fantastic theories about its meaning.

I can see value in both the literal and deeper interpretations. If to write what you know means to write about topics on which you have some expertise, I’ve done that. If to write what you know means to tap into your most heartfelt emotions, I’ve done that, too. If it means to write a list of all of the things you know from both ends of the spectrum in order to come up with a reason why people might read a blog written by you, well… that’s how Sopping Thursdays was born.

When I was 18, I wrote a trilogy of young adult novels (which, thankfully, remain unpublished). They were entirely about me. The main character looked and sounded exactly like me, my closest friends were characters, and the guy who had just dumped me was a villain. It all took place in a fantastical realm, but there was no mistaking that it was about my life. I took writing what I literally knew to the extreme. That’s not always a bad thing; my many scrapes, failures, and misadventures make for hilarious and engaging stories. That said, there’s a difference between using your experiences as inspiration and outright writing your memoirs. Just ask James Frey.

In that same trilogy lies a concrete example of why you should write what you literally know, or why you should avoid writing what you don’t know. I was really into New Orleans, thanks to Poppy Z. Brite and Nine Inch Nails. I’d never been there, but it seemed to my teenage self like a sort of Disneyland for goth-punks. I wanted my stories to partly take place in the city to give them a darkly exotic flair. I brought home a bunch of travel guides and went to town inserting references to streets, buildings, and other trivial information. It was terrible. I was describing sights and sounds that I knew nothing about, and doing the fair city an injustice.

But we can’t just write what we literally know, otherwise there would be no historical fiction, no fantasy fiction, or even male characters written by female authors. I’d be writing a blog about a writer writing a blog, and while that’s totally meta, it’s boring as hell. Imagination is at its root a beautiful, intricately woven web of lies that we choose to accept for our own entertainment. Fantasy fiction is writing about something you don’t know, and that doesn’t even exist, with such conviction that you can have your own cult following. Historical fiction is an example of how through careful, dedicated research, you can convincingly write about places and times that you’ve never experienced.

But wait… once you’ve done all that work, doesn’t it become what you know? Mind blown.

Writing what you know on the inside is another story. You’ll write with the most conviction about something you feel deeply, and I don’t just mean poetry, bad Yelp reviews, and Facebook tirades about disappointing series finales. Friendships, falling in love, breakups, losses of loved ones, hating your job, loving your pets, eating a tasty churro, and being afraid of moths are powerful experiences that leave us knowing the feelings that come with them. I’d like to say that the world’s best-selling novels are driven by sincere feelings, but somehow Danielle Steel continues to dominate the charts and I’m pretty sure she’s a robot. Still, the best characters and stories hit home because the authors know the feelings they’re conveying.

You can also write about feelings you know on experiences you’ve never had. What? Bear with me. “Gravity Journal” by Gail Sidonie Sobat is powerful and moving young adult novel about anorexia. To the best of my knowledge (and online snooping), Sobat never had an eating disorder, she just cares deeply about the subject. When Mark Haddon wrote “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time“, people were so blown away that they assumed the author had an autistic spectrum condition. He doesn’t, he just really cared about presenting behavioral struggles. Both authors drew on people they knew and feelings they had about their subject matter to put themselves into their characters’ shoes.

Should you write what you know? Yes. Does that mean you have to write about your exact life experiences or feelings? No. But it does mean that your best work will come from somewhere inside, be it your knowledge of a foreign country or of the sensation of having your heart smashed into pieces. When I come across stories I drew from hardest times of my life, the raw pain of the words still gives me goosebumps. I have yet to write a story about the sheer delight of eating an amazing pastry, but I’m pretty sure my feelings about dessert are so powerful that it would be a best seller.

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