Teachers Write 7.18.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Mike Jung

Good morning! Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here, and we have guest author Mike Jung visiting with today’s mini-lesson! Mike is the author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES as well as UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT. He’s also plays a mean ukulele, and he joins us today to challenge a bit of conventional writing wisdom…


Write About What You Don’t Know

One of the most common pieces of accepted writing wisdom is “write what you know,” meaning…okay, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Of course, every most common piece of accepted writing wisdom has its equal and opposite reaction, and for that one it’s “write what you don’t know,” meaning we should push ourselves, reach outside the comfortable boundaries of our current knowledge, and write about things we don’t know, but want to know, and are willing to learn about. Be diligent and respectful, do your research, have trustworthy people who can read your work with an informed perspective, etc.

Good advice, to be sure. However, HOWEVER, that’s not what I’m talking about in this post, as you can tell by the clever insertion of “about” between “write” and “what.” When I say “write about what you don’t know,” I mean something very different from the aforementioned “write what you don’t know,” because I’m not talking about approaching a story whose core is outside of our existing knowledge or life experience, using research/interviews/travel/etc. in order to fill those gaps of knowledge and experience to the greatest extent possible, then writing about that new knowledge with as much authority as we can muster. What I’m talking about is seizing upon a moment in which we discover a gap in our knowledge, experience, understanding, or worldview, and writing about how and why that gap exists.

I know, super-tricky! How do we write about something we don’t know about if we don’t know about it? Could you be any more confusing, Mike? What kind of writer are you? Maybe an example would be more illuminating. Yes, I’m thinking this blog post through as I write it, sorry. #notsorry

My mother and I have a complicated relationship. I love her, we’re very alike in more than one way, and we have a lot of difficulty communicating. I won’t go into all of the reasons for that difficulty, partly because I still don’t fully understand them all myself, but there’ve been some calamitously large gaps in our knowledge about each other, including my knowledge about her childhood and adolescence in post-WWII Korea. That’s changed to some degree over the past ten years, and the credit for that goes to my wife Miranda, because she’s somehow able to talk to my mother in a way I’m not, and as a result I’ve heard some stories about my family history that I don’t remember ever hearing before, some of them expected, some of them truly harrowing, all of them startling in their unfamiliarity. I knew my brothers were already more familiar with these stories than I was; like I said, it’s very, very complicated.

I really am enough of a creatively opportunistic troglodyte to have very quickly thought about these story fragments (because they did feel like haltingly conveyed fragments to me) as literary raw material. Miranda rightfully thought that those stories held the seeds of a compelling memoir, and that’s how I very briefly thought about them in terms of storytelling (“briefly” because collaborating with family members on any kind of project is a psychological minefield I’m not even remotely ready to walk through). Write what I don’t know, as they say. My mother’s experiences are not my own; would it be possible for me to learn about them to the point where I could write about them authoritatively in any way?

I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, because I ended up doing something quite different, albeit in a very diffuse, long-term, subconscious kind of way. I didn’t write anything that was directly about my mother’s very challenging experiences as a child and teenager in Korea; I thought about them, but I didn’t write about them. And I thought about other things. I thought about how and why it is that my mother and I have such intense troubles with communication; I thought about the shatteringly vast differences in our life experiences, and the equally shattering similarities in how we sometimes approach the world around us; I thought about the fact that there’s so much about my mother’s life that I didn’t know, and still don’t know.

Eventually, gradually, over years, I ended up writing about that lack of knowledge. It wasn’t a linear, A-to-B process, because sorting through the entire history of my relationship with my mother’s not something you do over the course of a couple of lattes, you know what I mean? And I didn’t take these psychological and conversational experiences with my mom in a direct, ripped-from-the-family-headlines kind of way, although there may very well come a day when I do exactly that. What I ended up writing about, years later, was a book called Unidentified Suburban Object in which a character (her name’s Chloe Cho) knows nothing about her parents’ pre-immigration life, tries very, very hard to find out, and then does, with surprising results. The story of Chloe’s parents bears only the most broad and nonspecific resemblance to my parents’ story, and the reason Chloe knows so little isn’t a reason that it’d even be possible to use as an explanation for my lack of knowledge.

Chloe’s emotional reactions are true to life, however. They’re distilled down to their essence in some ways, and my lifetime of pondering these questions gave Chloe a far greater degree of self-awareness and critical inquiry than I ever possessed as a tween-age kid, but there’s real honesty in the emotional underpinnings of that story.

My mini-lesson probably won’t provide any immediate solutions to problems in what you’re writing today. Or heck, maybe it will, but I think of it in longer-view terms than that. Maybe you could try it anyway? Writing doesn’t have to be a short term thing, after all, and actively building the ability to examine our internal selves is one of the most important aspects of doing this work. If we can engage in this kind of self-examination, which can feel so unresolved for so long, we can unearth a wealth of emotional honesty. I value emotional honesty; when it comes to doing the work of writing books for children, it’s probably what I value most. Maybe we can think of this as a way of laying groundwork for future work that’s more polished and more complete.

Today’s assignment: Is there some action, event, period of time, swath of history, or social arena that you didn’t know about, and jarred your sense of self when you learned more? Have you thought about why you didn’t know? How did you finally end up knowing more? Write about that. Don’t write about the thing you didn’t know about; write about the reasons you didn’t know about it. It may feel awkward. It may actually hurt. Write about it anyway. You can do it. You may find that this is one that wants to stay in your notebook for now, but as always, feel free to share a paragraph or two of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like.

21 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.18.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Mike Jung

  1. Dear Mike Jung,
    Thank you for stopping by TW today. I have a terrible admission to make. I have Unidentified Suburban Object in my library. I’ve checked it out to students many times. Whenever I saw the cover I was intrigued but kinda discounted it as “too goofy” for me. I tend to run dramatic/emotional.

    But, then I read your post here early this morning and it really struck me…like struck me very pointedly. You describe so much of why I write and what I’m trying to get at in my writing.

    I then opened up a new document to begin writing for today. I have a wip…that by GOD I will get turned into a mss someday or else! Don’t ask me what the or else is. I have no idea.

    But, I answered your prompt. I typed as if I were gulping down a glass of water. I poured out about 1,200 words before I even looked up. Geesh, did you poke at something in me. Thanks?

    Anyway, I quickly read back through the crappy draft and copied and pasted a line or two from each paragraph into a list….a found poetry of sorts. Wow. What do you charge for a therapy session?

    Thanks for the great prompt. I will use the intensity of this prompt for my wip’s characters. They are not me and didn’t experience what I wrote about. But, the intensity of the feelings is what I want in my plot.

    Have a great day. Keep writing and wow, thanks again.

    Here’s my list of phrases lifed out of my writing session:
    Found within the — the words
    She loved lining things up perfectly…even competitively.
    city girl from a family that liked fine things
    grandmother died and golf just kinda fell by the wayside
    big old battleship of a house.
    windows faced East Hill and the rising sun every day. It was a lovely place to be…and to sew.
    wrote an essay about Central America
    But, the facts were not what I was after.
    I was after the emotional impact of the facts.
    I took my little essay into the sewing room.
    She shut me down with politics.
    disappointed by her response….and felt corrected
    we don’t understand each other in this world that my mother has left us to.
    The full circle of this dawns on me
    mom is not sewing….but I would still like her to know
    still like her to give me praise and pride for being a writer.

    1. Linda, love this interesting and emotional piece of writing.

      I really liked how you took some of the phrases and sentences that spoke to you after doing Mike’s exercise — I’m going to try that!


      I’m kidding, of course, and Linda, “goofy” isn’t a terrible way to describe my book – it IS kind of goofy – but I also try to make sure the goofiness of my writing is part of a fully-formed emotional palate. Thank you so much, both for getting the book into the hands of kids, and for being willing to take a swing at it yourself! That’s the whole being-a-writer deal right there, you know?

      Your found poetry is wonderful. Just wonderful. It’s a good feeling for me to know I’m not the only one who finds value in this kind of emotional intensity, and these lines have a great deal of emotional intensity and richness – there are worlds to explore here. Thanks so much for sharing it, and whether you figure out the “or else” or not, you CAN turn this into a finished manuscript. Good luck!

      P.S. First therapy session’s on the house! To all of the real therapists out there (including my wife), I DON’T MEAN IT, YOUR WORK HAS VALUE, AGH

  2. Mike, this was so insightful and inspirational; thank you for sharing your perceptive observations. Just as a side note, you may already know this, but a friend of ours who lived for years in Korea said their \”good morning\” greeting translates to \”I hope you had a peaceful night,\” a nod to the many centuries of Korea\’s having been occupied and invaded. It\’s going to be a fun challenge to work on your lesson — thank you!

    1. Thank you Margo! I think I did know that, but it’s been a looooong time since I’ve even thought about it, so thank you for the reminder. My mother’s generation had more than their fair share of horrifying experiences, to be sure. I’m glad this sounds both challenging AND fun!

  3. Andrea and Linda,
    I liked this, as well. I was starting to get a feel for where you are going, Linda. I’ll admit, I want to know more.

  4. Mike, what a great exercise. I think you hit a cord with me, as well. I put down a #shittyfirstdraft of something that I think I need to explore further. It’s a little long, but I hope you don’t mind. Thank you for the push.
    “I don’t understand why you are so pissed at me. All I said was that I don’t think of you as black. I just think of you as my friend. It’s not supposed to be a cut. It just means I love you as a friend. My closest friend. What the hell, Jen?” I looked at Jen in complete confusion. One second we are talking about the boys at school, and the next she is across the room yelling at me.

    Jen squared back around to face me. “You don’t understand. You will never understand. You can’t understand because you’re white. It’s not your fault that you’re white, and it’s not a bad thing that you are white. But you are, and because of that you can never understand what it means to be black. What it means to be black every day, at school, at the mall, and with you.”

    Jen’s words hit me full on in the face. “…with you.” What was that supposed to mean. We’ve been friends since 3rd grade, when Jen’s family moved to Sacramento from Atlanta. I was chosen as her “buddy” by the teacher, so I showed her where the bathroom was and played with her at recess, all the while explaining the school rules. I noticed her color right away, but I didn’t care. I was proud that the teacher picked me to help, and I thought she was beautiful. Her face was the color of a fancy dining table. Mahogany, or something like that. It was black, with an almost reddish tint. It was shiny too, but it couldn’t outshine her smile that jumped off her face, brilliant white, like snow in the bright sun. Once Jen shared that smile with me, I knew we would be friends.

    Maybe that’s the problem. I decided we would be friends. Did Jen have a choice? I was really confused by this whole situation. All I knew was that I needed to fix it, but how?

    1. Susan, I very much appreciate that you’re doing this, because this particular experience, the experience of growing up white in the USA, is not one that gets examined often in our work. Writing like this is not without risk, although for those of us in positions of societal privilege that risk is mostly rooted in personal discomfort, which can seem unbearable despite the fact that it’s a contained, non-systemic risk. That said, it can be very hard to try and explore our inner, unexposed thoughts and our unconscious biases. It’s one of the toughest ways to delve into “what we don’t know,” because we’re self-protective creatures, and some of the things we don’t know about ourselves are things we don’t WANT to know because they threaten the cohesion of our cultivated self-images. I like and respect that you’re doing this. I’d like to see you continue going deeper with it, and fight off any self-protective urges that arise while you’re working on it, and if you’re like me, those urges will pop up everywhere. It’s like a game of psychic Whack-a-Mole. Thank you – there’s a very real way in which you’ve gone right to the heart of what I’m talking about here.

  5. I just read the book The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle.  I loved that it was written in verse, but it made me realize how little I know about Cuba’s history.  I know about some of it’s more recent history, especially it’s revolution and dysfunctional relationship with the U.S.  This country is very close to the U.S., and I know hardly anything about it.  I didn’t know anything about its three revolutions in the 1800s, but I learned how we (the U.S.) got entangled with Cuba.  The ending of this book is sad because of the quote about being freed from one country only to be corralled to another one.  I didn’t know anything about this because I grew up in the U.S., where we spend years and years learning about our nation’s history, but barely any time at all on the history of the rest of the world.  How can we learn all of the world’s history in one high school class? We can’t, obviously.  Plus, that class focused more on Europe than other other continent.  South and Central America get very little attention in our history classes.  It’s a shame.  I was never that interested in Cuba except when it popped up on the news.  This book made me want to learn more about Cuba, fill in the gaps in my knowledge about a country whose history is intertwined with ours but it mostly missing from our history books (except, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis).  I consider myself a well-educated person, but there was this gap in my knowledge that feels uncomfortable and wrong.  How could I not know about this before?

    1. MARGARITA ENGLE IS AWESOME! And yes, Andrea, uncomfortable and wrong sounds exactly right to me. I’ve been doing my best to engage with the work of advancing diversity in the world of children’s literature over the past few years, and I believe very strongly in the work and the people I’ve met who do it. Where my belief falters is with regard to my own ability to do it. I’ve never felt so catastrophically ignorant in my life, and the moments in which I think “oh well, look at that, something I know less than zero about” or “wait, I have no idea how to handle the complexities of this discussion, help” are legion. Those moments are clearly prime opportunities to actually learn something and grow, as a human being first and foremost, but also as a writer. There’s a hidden deposit of high-octane emotional truth behind every one of those moments, you know? There’s a ton of creative ore in those moments, and the work of refining that psychic ore is no walk in the park, but if we can do it? Gold, my friend. Pure gold. Thanks for sharing, Andrea!

  6. Dear Mike, Thanks for sharing. Writing should make us face some of the tough questions about ourselves and others. What I have to share isn’t from a WIP but I think it fits today’s prompt.

    I thought my grandmother was dead. It’d been years since the night my family sat around the table and decided that if she went back to her ex-husband, we would be done with her. I wasn’t old enough
    to understand the
    reasons for their choice but old enough to understood their tears. And because of the hurt I never questioned what had happened. As time passed and no word was spoken about Grandma, I assumed she died. Then one day I was snooping through my mother’s dresser drawers and there they were. Letters! Letters from my grandmother. She wasn’t dead. She was in Florida and she was asking to come home.

    1. Hi Martha, this is great! Talk about not knowing something massively important being hidden from a character! The moment of discovery matters, of course, but as you’ve done here, it can serve very well as the beginning of a “what, I had no idea about any of this” process of learning. And in children’s fiction, at least, we do need to take even the biggest, most complex dynamics and at some point bring them down to the personal, individual level. Discoveries relating to family history are obviously something I’ve been thinking about, so I like your starting point very much. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I wrote (a bit, will write more eventually) about the fact that my grandparents (and later my aunt) hid the fact that my grandparents were Jewish. I still wonder why they did not tell everyone once people started to find out. I like the idea of this kind of writing.

    1. Erika, that sounds like a nearly limitless story to explore. So complex, so meaningful, so many layers of experience, feeling, and history to sort through. It’s a staggering thing to discover about family members; it’s incredibly compelling. Thanks so much for telling us about it, and I hope you do explore it more fully in the future.

  8. Mike, Jung, what an illuminating post I am going to print this out and my fav quote from you is this: “Writing doesn’t have to be a short term thing, after all, and actively building the ability to examine our internal selves is one of the most important aspects of doing this work. If we can engage in this kind of self-examination, which can feel so unresolved for so long, we can unearth a wealth of emotional honesty. I value emotional honesty; when it comes to doing the work of writing books for children, it’s probably what I value most. Maybe we can think of this as a way of laying groundwork for future work that’s more polished and more complete.” Good, real writing takes time and emotions must be felt and sifted through to get the truth that kids deserve to know. You, sir, are a philosopher. Thank you.

    1. Aw, thanks Kathy! You praise me too much – “philosopher” is too grand a term for me – but I do try very hard to be honest with my writing, whether it’s in my stories or in blog posts like this one, so I’m glad that effort strikes a chord with you!

  9. Thank you for your post. It was very interesting and you have a great style of writing!
    Gosh there are so many things I don’t know. My big question, but see this is something that I would never know the answer to, is what would my life have turned out like if I had stayed in high school the last year instead of going to college?
    I could imagine what I could write about and describe what could have happened. But there is no answer to this – only imagination.