Stephen Wertzbaugher: May 2017 Barefoot Writing Challenge Winner


Congratulations to Stephen Wertzbaugher for Winning the May 2017 Barefoot Writing Challenge! (Your $100 prize is on its way!)

The Challenge was to write an essay that answered this question:

What advice do you wish you’d gotten back when you first started your writing career?

Stephen shared a frank admission of the ups and downs he’s experienced as a writer, along with the valuable lesson that brought him back to the craft he loves. Enjoy his winning submission:

Write What You Know. What It Really Means.

Write what you know.

One day, I told an adult relative that I wanted to be a writer. I asked her what I should write about. She said, “Write what you know.”

I was seven.

I knew about snakes and lizards, and spiders and bugs. I knew about playing outside and exploring the open fields behind our apartment. So that’s what I wrote about. And I had a blast.

Write what you know.

It was 1978. I was a high school junior. And I’d just seen Star Wars.

I walked out of the theater mesmerized, wanting to tell stories like the one I’d just seen. And so, I began writing my first novel.

In the meantime, I graduated from high school, went to college, got married, started a family, earned a graduate degree, and started a career in microbiology.

Still, all I really wanted to do was write.

I finished my novel in 1989. I sent the manuscript to an eager and hungry literary agent, who promptly rejected it with the words, “You show great promise, but you need to learn more about the craft,” scrawled at the top of the cover page.

With those words echoing through my mind, I set out to do just that.

But something strange happened. The more I learned about the craft of writing, the less I wrote.

The killing stroke fell when a magazine editor rejected a short story I’d submitted with the words, “You are a misogynistic bastard and have no business writing. Period!” at the top of the rejection letter.

Stung to my soul, I stopped writing outside my job as a software technical writer.

Write what you know.

Through the decades I’ve known pain, loss and betrayal, defeat and failure, and joy and triumph. I bear emotional wounds that will never truly heal, but that I have learned to accept. I’ve been married to the same woman for 34 years, raised three children, and am now a grandparent. I’ve also developed an obsession for scuba diving.

I know a lot. I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve lived a lot.

But every time I tried to resurrect my writing, the same question plagued me: what did ‘write what you know’ truly mean?

Did it mean to write from my knowledge and experience? Did it mean to write about what interested me? Did it mean to write for a market or an audience? I had no clue.

Then one day, I gazed into the light without being blinded by it.

For me, “write what you know,” meant to write with trust, loyalty, passion, and integrity. It meant staying true to myself and my values. It meant that I know the reason behind the words I write. Most importantly, it meant giving back.

I am writing again.

Purpose, audience, market, craft: these are important.

But without trust, loyalty, passion, and integrity, they are meaningless.

Write what you know.


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