Write What You Don’t Know
[Writing Wednesdays is taking a break this week. Here’s a favorite from last year. ]
Probably the most classic kernel of writing advice is “Write What You Know.” On the surface, that seems to make a lot of sense, and I’m sure it has worked for thousands and thousands of writers. It didn’t work for me.
When I was a beginning writer I had two literary heroes: Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway. A lot of aspiring writers in my era had those guys as heroes. Kerouac and Hemingway weren’t so much my heroes for what they wrote (though that was a big part of it); it was more the ethic under which they did their writing.
Their stuff seemed to be really true. They took it from events they had really lived, people they had really known, wisdom and insights they had garnered in real life. I admired that. It seemed manly and honorable and hairy-chested. I strove to do that myself. I hacked out three novels, none of which saw the light of publication, that were my version of that ethic. The books weren’t terrible. There was a lot of good stuff in them. But they weren’t any good either. They never rose to the level at which I could in good conscience ask another human being to read them.
What saved my life was dumping that ethic. I was living in New York City then, down to about twenty bucks, had just finished the third of those manuscripts and was showing it to friends and getting back that plastic frozen smile when I asked them what they thought of it. I was about three days away from hanging myself. Then from somewhere I got the idea to try a screenplay. For some reason, the change of medium freed me. It gave me permission to make stuff up. I decided to try a story and characters that had nothing to do with me and nothing to do with my real life.
It worked. Here’s my theory on why:
The part of us that we write from is far deeper than our everyday selves. In fact it has nothing whatsoever to do with our everyday selves. It comes from the Muse. It comes from the unconscious. It comes from some place we only tap into in dreams or intuition or inspiration.
Good things happen when we write from that place.
When we write only what we know, we limit ourselves to territory we’ve already covered. When we write what we don’t know, we launch ourselves into terra incognita. That’s where the good stuff is.
The first piece I ever did following this advice was a screenplay about prison. I’ve never been arrested; I don’t know anything about life behind bars. But when the script was done and I showed it around, people would tug me aside and whisper, “Hey, man, where’d you do time?”
That was a revelation to me. And it’s proved itself again and again. In writing, when I make something up completely, the reaction is often, “Wow, that was convincing as hell.” When I write from reality, people tell me, “Dude, I didn’t buy that shit for a minute!”
It takes a little madness to write what you don’t know. It’s like leaping into the deep end. But it’s also tremendously liberating. I’m reading a wonderful book now called Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, who for years was one of the star teachers of drama at Stanford. Her thesis is “Don’t prepare, just show up.” In other words, trust in the mystery. Open your mouth and see what comes out. I’ve heard Jackson Browne say that he writes songs to find out what he thinks about something. In other words, he doesn’t know going in.
If you’re a writer (or any kind of aspiring artist or entrepreneur) and you find yourself stuck, a good trick is to just write (or enact) something completely from left field. If you’re a man, try something in the voice of a woman. Write something from another century, from Mongolia, from Mars. Just plunge in and wing it.
I’ve found, in more than one instance, that I can write characters who are more intelligent than I am. I don’t know Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep but I’ll bet if you or I met them, they’d be the nicest, most decent people imaginable. Yet look at the range of characters they’ve played–and been completely convincing doing it. I’m sure Anthony Hopkins is a wonderful, sweet guy. But he scared the crap out of me as Hannibal Lecter.
There’s stuff “down there” in all of us. It’s vast and deep and limitless. That’s the vein we need to mine as artists and as entrepreneurs. I’ve heard start-up businessmen say the two qualities they needed most in their initial ventures were arrogance and ignorance. You gotta be a little crazy (or desperate) to write or do what you don’t know. But there’s great wisdom and magic in that act. It demonstrates faith in the universe, in the Muse, in the source of all inspiration. And that faith, almost invariably, is rewarded by the cosmos and vindicated by events. I recommend it.
[This week’s signed “War of Art” goes to Patricia Ryan Madson, not for any specific quote but for her terrific book, “Improv Wisdom,” which is an inspiration to me. Thanks, Patricia! Everyone else, keep sending in them quotes!]