Areas of Your Expertise

by | Aug 20, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

I know a lot about cheese, and I know a lot about prescriptive grammar. I know a lot about Andy Warhol, too, because I read everything by and about him that I possibly could during high school, and made a “pop”-up book about him for an American Studies project in 10th grade. I know a lot about Atlanta Braves history, Merle Haggard and country music generally, and postcolonial France. 

There was a time that someone could win an argument by saying, “I wrote a report about it.” You could make the most outlandish claim about a subject, and if you said you wrote a report about it, nobody could dispute it. That doesn’t really work anymore. 

For writers, there are two directions in which expertise and writing flow: either you are already interested in and knowledgeable about a subject and it somehow works its way into your writing, or you do research specifically for something you’re writing. A character’s profession or place of birth, maybe. 

It can be recursive, of course. A little of both. You know a lot already but you research it a little more. Or you have a glimmer of interest so you make that your character’s whole thing, and get to learn all about something besides. 

As a reader, I prefer the former. I like a writer with some knowledge to throw down. Vladimir Nabokov was, of course, an expert on butterflies. He said, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” 

That mixture of aesthetic pleasure and the pleasure of knowing translates so easily to the page, when the interest and passion predates the writing, when the writing is more of an aesthetically careful record or repository for all the knowing. Many years ago, when Adam and I ran a literary site called Real Pants, we got to publish a long and incredibly pleasurable essay by Molly Brodak called “Whipped Cream: A Treatise.” It has to be the most substantial piece ever written on the most insubstantial confection. There’s history, science, pop culture. And, being a treatise, it’s also got the confidence of Molly’s well-informed opinions. And a definitive recipe!

The expertise essay is not always on such a concrete topic as whipped cream or butterflies; there’s also the “On______” genre, à la Montaigne. “On Friendship,” for instance–a subject that you may not write a report about in grade school, but one that Montaigne, at least, has tended and turned over in his mind for a very long time, a mix of practice and theory. 

On the fiction side, one of my favorite research-heavy books is Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (affiliate link). It’s wild. The outlines of the story and the very eccentric character are taken from history–the pleasure of knowing–but the aesthetic pleasure is all in Dutton’s uncanny embroidery. 

Prompt

Write from a place of expertise. What do you know a lot about? What have you thought a lot about? On what do you have some interesting points to make, an unconventional opinion (not to be confused with an unpopular opinion, which is a boring thing in which you tweet about liking something other people don’t, or vice-versa more often, which is really more a matter of taste than an opinion at all, and is not something worth writing about at any length)?

Make, perhaps, a short list of the subjects about which you know so much. Then decide which of the things is the most pleasurable in the knowing about it. I don’t just mean pleasurable like happy–it could be pleasurable because you know more than most people, and you feel a little superior about it. Or maybe you take pleasure in the complicated or paradoxical or troubled, and you know enough to know where all that woolly stuff is in the subject matter. 

Once you’ve chosen your subject, repeat to yourself: Report. Report. Report. In other words, make the subject and all the fun or not-so-fun facts about it really guide the piece. Make it the main thing, so central that the subject itself is the whole title (Margaret the First) or at least most of the title (“On Friendship”; “Whipped Cream: A Treatise.”). Promise to your eventual readers that, once they read your piece, they, too, can win arguments on anything related to the subject. 
Report! This is not a prompt in which you make the subject into a metaphor for something else. You may have opinions–Montaigne certainly did, as did Molly–but primarily you are here to inform. Find your angle, and the opinion part will emerge anyway. It will be uncanny.