On Writing. . .

There is only so much that a writer can say about themselves and their craft before anything more becomes one long commercial message.

That being the case, I find that sometimes it is more productive to reflect upon past experiences in the form of a story so as to help the reader find the form for themselves than outright making the attempt to illustrate it.

Bearing in mind that I didn't major in English or Journalism - I was an Engineering and Maths student - you might find that this experience that I am about to relate to you may neatly fill that role.

The reason for my odd choice of major is down to the fact that, back then, when you wanted to study any area in the computer sciences, you had to be an Engineering or Maths Student.

There was no such thing as a Computer Science Department per se, or a CS degree program for that matter.

The reason I chose ICW00 as one of the optional courses in English and Literature for my degree plan was simple: even then I knew that whatever else it was I did in my adult career, I wanted to write.

My professor was of the "sink-or-swim" school of teaching, so naturally our first assignment was a heavy and complex short story focused upon death and emotion.

The only caveats offered were (1) it may not be a story about how we felt in losing a loved one; (2) the voice in the story could not be death as a character; and (3) it could not end with the story turning out to have been a suicide note.

The story I wrote was about a jumbuck named Tim and his relationship with the pastoralist who was responsible for deciding who lived and who died each season.

Please be aware that these events - and the assignment - took place in 1984, which is almost 11-years before the movie "Babe" existed, so Arthur Hoggeett and Babe had nothing to do with it.

Tim - you see - was not fortunate enough to be born and live on an industrial sheep station -- like the one I grew up on -- his home was a station whose main source of income was breeding, raising, and marketing sheep as food.

During our conversation my prof said that he liked it a lot - but when he learned that I grew up on a sheep station, he got angry with me.

"I told you to write a story that was not about you!" he said with timber and tone that I found to be an uncomfortably loud experience.

"Um, yeah, no worries," I lamely replied.

"But this is about you?!" he said.

"I said no personal real-life subjects for this assignment!" he added.

Okay no, he had said no such thing, I told myself - but refrained from sharing that observation with him...

The main point to what he actually told us was that the story could not be about how we felt from losing a loved one. I may be country but I don't love sheep; and Tim lived on a sheep station that raised sheep for slaughter, not wool.

The fact that he eventually escaped thanks to assistance from a dingo named Bob and a joey named Joey (alright I was not real original in my name choices) convinced me I was totally in-the-right there.

Of course I didn't say that - I am certain that would have made him angrier still.

Unfortunately what I did say also made him even angrier than he was - but in a good way.

"I thought in writing we are supposed to write what we know?" was my hesitant answer.

That was when I learned one of the most important lesson in writing period.

My prof explained where I'd gone wrong; he said that that Mark Twain quote was possibly the most misunderstood and badly interpreted writing advice ever offered.

It was not Twain's fault that so many teachers and writers have gotten it wrong since he first wrote it.

"Twain was not saying you should only write about things you know well or intimately; what he meant was that you should choose subjects around which to base your work that you are familiar with...

"His point was that doing so allowed you the advantage of not making basic mistakes.

"For example you know a lot about raising sheep so you are not likely to make a glaring error about the science of breeding that will distract the reader.

"Twain knew a lot about the Mississippi River - and the act of navigating it - but next to nothing about being a runaway or a slave.

"He chose a subject he knew well, and then launched into a story that covered experiences he had to research.

"That's one of the reasons that the story Huckleberry Finn is so good. He worked hard at becoming the characters but he did it in a setting he knew a lot about.

"That is what he meant by the observation that a good writer should write what they know," he concluded.

The lesson I learned that day was one I took to heart; from that moment forward I made it a point to challenge myself and make my writing about exploration and learning while keeping it set in familiar territory. I have never regretted that - not once.

I am an engineer who is very well-grounded in network and computer science, which is largely what caused me to focus upon business and computer tech as my initial chosen beats when I changed careers in the early aughts, and became a writer.

Thanks in part to a nearly life-long fascination and attraction to computer and video games, even while I worked the business, tech, and Internet beats I also worked hard at gaining access to the games and video games beats, and I still cover all five beats today.

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