47: Writing What You Know

47: Writing What You Know

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Writing What You Know

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.

~William Wordsworth

“Why are you boys making all that noise up there?

What are you doing?” my mother shouted up from the kitchen. It was Saturday morning and my brother David and I were off on yet another adventure. I was six and he was five, and jumping from one bed to another had pushed things just a little too far.

“We’re just playing ‘stories’ Mommy,” I replied.

“Well play a little more quietly.”

Playing “stories.” Ever since I was a little boy, I would make up stories to play with my brother. We had fantastic adventures in which we fought space pirates, giant monsters and mad scientists. I still create fictional stories that I try to get published and that I hope will eventually allow me to quit my day job. But being a crime reporter for a major market newspaper isn’t too bad; I mean at least when I tell people I’m a writer I can add that it’s how I pay the bills. For that I can blame my mother, Betty Ann Miller.

My mother loved books. She was always reading her novels, histories and romance magazines. When David and I were toddlers, she read us stories before bedtime. Grimm’s Fairy Tales—“Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella”—and heroic Greek myths, though “Sleeping Beauty” was my favorite.

So I suppose that I came by my unwavering desire to be a published novelist naturally. My mother graduated from high school but always regretted that she never went to college. She was a stay-at-home mom, and our growing family squashed the notion of returning to school. Soon, along came Marilyn, Harold-Fitzgerald, William and Christopher.

When I was nineteen, I borrowed from the library a copy of the Writer’s Market to learn how I could begin publishing my stories. Naturally, as a huge fan of the science fiction genre, I looked to submit a piece to Amazing Stories. So I came up with a story I called “The Space Masters.” They were a trio of futuristic intelligence agents looking to take down a gang of space pirates who had been troubling peaceful worlds. I worked at a fast food restaurant at the time flipping burgers, and when I came home I jumped into the world of the Space Masters.

“What’s that you’ve been working on?” Mom asked me one night.

“It’s a short science-fiction story,” I replied.

“Really?” she asked. “Well I’d like to read it when you’re finished.”

“Sure,” I said. “I want you to read it before I send it to New York. I’m going to try and get it published.” I showed her the Writer’s Market, and she seemed impressed and left me to my work. Now, in retrospect, I can see that she had already read it and I’ll explain why. Several days later I finished “The Space Masters” and proudly handed over twelve typed sheets of paper. I went back to my room and played a David Bowie album while I waited. I could hear her and my father talking about it but I didn’t eavesdrop. I just knew they were going to love it.

About an hour later she called me downstairs. Daddy was smiling conspiratorially. “Did you like it?” I asked.

Instead of four stars and two thumbs up she said, “You have a gift, Lawrence. Yes, I like it but why don’t you write about what you know?”

“But what do I know?” I said, a little disappointed. I was only nineteen and all I knew was school, flipping burgers for minimum wage and growing up in West Philadelphia. What the heck did I know?

“You should try writing about what you know and see where that takes you.”

Writing about what you know.

Looking back, I can see that I was born and grew up at the turning point in American history—the Civil Rights Movement. My great-grandmother, Emma Hines, wrote letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and he wrote her back, though I have no idea where those letters are. I remember his assassination and the riots that followed. I lived in the time of President John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. And I remember when each of them was killed for trying to make America into a better nation in spite of itself. Today I am a crime reporter for a major city newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune.

My twelve-page science fiction story didn’t see publication, but my news articles have won awards for the paper and gotten me guest spots on Nancy Grace, various local radio shows and fifteen minutes of fame on NBC Nightly News. I wouldn’t have done any of that if my mother hadn’t given me a love of literature. I write about what I know, the shared experiences of life in urban America. True, I write about things that are tragic and heartbreaking, but sometimes I get to write about good people doing good things and trying to make life better for everyone. With the Internet, a reporter in Philadelphia has no idea who is reading his work. It could be a student working on a dissertation or a young reporter working for a college newspaper, and sometimes they call to ask if they can quote you.

My mother didn’t live to see my first published magazine article or any of the ones that followed. She never got to see my first freelance story for the Tribune or the day they made me a fulltime reporter. She never got to read my first front-page story, which I know would have made her so proud. But I’d like to think that she’s looking down from heaven, along with Daddy and both sets of grandparents and a legion of uncles and aunts, and they’re saying: “You go, boy!”

See Mommy, I’m writing about what I know. Thank you.

~Larry Miller

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