Stephen King doesn’t think so. Or, at least, he says in On Writing to “begin by interpreting ‘write what you know’ as broadly and inclusively as possible” (158). There’s a lot we don’t know about, and King advises we supplement knowledge with imagination. This, too, is good advice, and reflecting on it helped me remember the best writing instruction I ever received as a student. Ironically, it couldn’t have been less intrusive – we’re not talking about an instructional strategy to remove all adverbs (“the road to hell is paved with adverbs”) or avoid passive voice (“It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous”). But it forced me to become uncomfortable, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I don’t remember what I wrote, and I can only speculate why I was asked to write it in the first place, but in third grade, Mary Jo Compton handed me a tidy little four-inch by four-inch picture book that had no words and told me to write the story. It featured an elephant, and it involved a ball. It wasn’t short. It probably wasn’t a child’s book, and I’d imagine parents would have some work to do sharing it with a couple of lap-dwellers. But it was rich with potential, and evidently Mrs. Compton thought I was too. She gave me the book and set me free to create. Nobody else in class was doing this work; when everybody would gather to read in groups or to take a spelling test I would move to the back of the room and pick up the elephant book. She didn’t check in on me; she didn’t coach me; she didn’t strike through my adverbs and didn’t yell at me for using passive voice. She let me imagine and invent. I remember struggling, first with the concept and then with the development, and I remember it being the first time I had ever struggled in school. But I also remember adapting, embracing the challenge and recognizing the opportunity.
I couldn’t write what I knew because I had the responsibility of balancing a loyalty to the images on the pages and the strangeness of giving life and words and a third-grader’s rational thought to an elephant (and maybe a ball). I realized there are moments when, and there are students for whom, a teacher needs to just get out of the way. Writers don’t know when magic will happen. Teachers can’t know when it will happen for any student. Writers can cultivate the atmosphere and attitude that leads to the best writing they can do; King talks at length about this. And teachers can watch for a spark and add fuel at the right moment. I think Mrs. Compton did this, and I’ve never gotten over it. I don’t know if she ever put her arm around my shoulder, but I know her influence has extended to students in my classes – not all of them, but those that I could see needed it.