My greatest misconception about being a writer when I was growing up was that writers needed to go out and have experiences. I was captivated by Joseph Conrad having been a sailor, Melville having been a whaler, Twain a miner and riverboat pilot, plus Hemingway, and London to name a few. I went out to have experiences and had lot of them. I got so busy having experiences that I wasn’t writing about any of them. Plus the old adage, Write what you know seemed like particularly sage advice. Well. I’ve done a bunch of stuff and I know a bunch of stuff. Of course what was missing was how to think about what I knew and experienced. How to make sense of it.
I can see why teachers would tell a student, “write what you know” in the sense that doing all the research can hinder the learning of telling a good story. Just keep the subject simple and work on the art and craft of writing. Scaffolding the learning as it were. Not that writing about your life doesn’t require a little research, because it does. One other aspect is to question what you do know or think you know. Turn it upside down and inside out. Re-envision your experiences. From what other lens can you see the same experience? As William Blake observed, the same world to one man is a heaven and to another a hell.
I started to think about “writing what you know” from a different angle. Instead of what you know as in life experiences to what you can know through research. Doing research led to what does it mean and in coming to terms with the fact that sometimes there is no pat answer or “moral of the story” I freed myself in a different way. I would hasten to add, there is sea of difference between an answer and a revelation.
This of course led to escape the idea of the physical story altogether and consider the emotional story, that emotional quest the protagonist embarks upon and what questions it raises. “The Secret Sharer” is not just a sea story and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t just some kid on a raft with an escaped slave. Surely even the most novice writers know love, hate, happiness, sadness et. al. So I wound up coming back full circle to writing what I know, but cast into the shadows. Trying to make sense of those emotional reactions also allowed me to explore the persistent questions those things engender without having to know what any of it meant. Writing both what I know and don’t know to varying degrees. Who said it had to be either or anyway? I mean isn’t that a logical fallacy?
Joan Didon said: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down,” giving herself permission to discover what she knows through the act of writing itself. The very act of writing leads our minds to make connections like synapses firing down unexplored avenues. Associations crop up as we write and the brain keeps working as our hands do. Besides the muse can’t help you if you’re not writing. Just write and discover. I don’t know much, but that’s what I do know.