"Write what you know"

By Kelsey Blair

November 17, 2015

“Write what you know” sounds like really terrible advice. It’s the kind of phrase you’d expect to be uttered by a bored guidance counsellor or written on an inspirational card with kittens on the front. It’s also the first piece of advice many creative writing teachers will give you. Naturally, I thought it best to ignore said advice. Little did I know that “writing what I know” would eventually lead me lead me to author two sports novels for children -  Pick and Roll and Ugly Kicks – both published by James Lorimer & Company. Importantly, for the SFU English Blog, it also lead me to dish out my own writing advice. But, first things first …

After finishing my basketball career –  which included five years of varsity women’s basketball at UBC and two years of professional basketball in Sweden – I made three decisions 1 ) I wanted to go back to school 2) I wanted to write 3) I wanted not to be “Kelsey Blair, Basketball Player” for a while. You know what I didn’t want to do? Write about basketball. So, instead I wrote about everything else: pennies, social media, Eve and Lucifer, real estate. And people kept asking me, “Why don’t you write about basketball?” And I kept refraining from yelling, “BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO!” But, after typing “façade” – a real estate keyword – a few too many times, I started asking myself that question too. 

The first thing I discovered when I started writing about sport? I can move a character around a basketball court like there’s no tomorrow. I can easily (and usually with a little bit of joy) describe a drill, the perfectly drawn up play, or what it feels like to grab a defensive rebound. 

The second thing I discovered? “Writing what you know” doesn’t only apply to subject matter. My familiarity with basketball helped me tell a story I was passionate about, but the writing skills I was learning in (grad) school were even more useful. Like essay writing, I mind-mapped my ideas; I created an outline based on the mind-map; I considered how the elements of the outline did (or in some, rather disheartening moments, didn’t) fit together; I moved parts of the story around to find the best structure. When I finally went to write, the words flowed. I finished the first draft in a month. 

As an English PhD student and Teaching Assistant, I am frequently asked to help students improve their writing. My first piece of advice? Conceptualize essay writing as a skill you want to know, one that is applicable for job applications, business communications, emailing your parents, arguing with a celebrity on Twitter, and telling your own stories. 

That way, every time you write, you’ll be writing what you know. 

Kelsey Blair holds a BA in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia, an MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, a Certificate in Film Production from Langara College, and an MA in Theatre Studies from the University of British Columbia. She is currently pursuing a PhD in English at Simon Fraser University, generously supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council doctoral fellowship. Her areas of interest include: musical theatre studies, performance studies, the socio-cultural study of sport, and affect theory (often in combination with one another!).