why ‘write what you know’ can be very bad advice
Write what you know.
This has always been problematic advice for me. I started writing fiction when I was very young – I wrote my first novel when I was 14 and it almost, almost, got published several years later – and I could sense from my obsessive reading that writers were supposed to know a lot more than I did.
I was a sheltered, smalltown girl, and the only thing I thought I knew was that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
I embarked on a quest to become Worldly and Experienced…at least partly so that I would have cool stuff to write about.
Except now I’m 37, and my life has been as interesting and surprising as my teenage self could have wanted, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I don’t know whatever it is I should know in order to write what I want.
Write what you want to know.
We forget that there are different ways of knowing. We know things in our head and our heart and our gut. And I mean literally: scientists have discovered brain in our gut (over a hundred million specialized nerve cells that allow it to act independently, learn, remember and influence perception and behavior) and our heart (over forty thousand neurons and an intricate network of neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells).
We know things through intellectual reasoning, but we also know through intuition and emotion. Knowledge comes packaged in nonverbal as well as verbal forms. There’s the knowledge of the mind, but also the body and the soul. Sometimes it’s the mind that we need to kick out of the way.
And often we don’t even know what we do know. The subconscious part of our brain takes in everything, records and remembers everything. It processes our lives in its own mysterious ways, to rise up through the dreams of creative work.
So when we’re compelled toward a particular subject matter, a certain kind of story, maybe it’s that shadowy underground knowledge that’s driving us. It’s not knowledge, necessarily, in the way we understand it. There are gaps and holes. We need to do research. But that want to know is a kind of knowing in itself: what we need to explore in our own writing in order to move toward wholeness.
Write what you don’t know…but will discover in the telling.
Steven Heighton said this, and it might be my favorite piece of writing advice ever.
Writing is a skill, and an art, and sometimes a dark art: you’re never quite sure where it comes from. You write to discover the story as much as tell it. When you step outside your comfort zone, push at the limits of what it is you think you know, you go down into the darkness of your underground self to mine the vein of gold that you find there. You write a murder mystery and discover that it’s really about your relationship with your father. You write a dark fantasy about magic and demons and discover that it’s really about your disintegrating marriage.
So I think, in the end, you need to write what you’re driven to write, whether you “know” it or not. Writing “what you know” is one step away from writing the book that you “should” write, which is a trick and a lie of the mind. You need to follow the whispers of your obsessions, and that ache in your gut you can’t verbalize because it goes beyond words, into a kind of inchoate longing. That’s where you’ll find the book that needs to get written, the sense and the feel of it.
Sometimes, to write what we know, we have to go into the unknown.