Write What You Don’t Know
The classic axiom cited to young writers starting out is
Write what you know.
Makes sense, right? If you’ve just returned from sailing alone around the world, write that story. If you’re a surgeon, a single mom, an opioid survivor … write about that.
Write what you know.
My theory is a little different. Like the other principles in this series, it’s counter-intuitive. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
But, as we’ve seen, sometimes sense is nonsense.
Logic and rationality rarely jibe with the unknowable intangibles of creativity.
My mantra for myself is
Write what you don’t know.
When I started Gates of Fire, I knew absolutely nothing about the ancient Spartans. (Okay, maybe a little.) Same with Last of the Amazons. Same with Killing Rommel.
Even The War of Art was a flyer for me.
Here’s what happens when you write what you don’t know.
The Muse enters the picture.
Consider Game of Thrones, or its literary progenitor from George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Imagine we’re George R.R. rolling the first blank sheet into the typewriter.
We peck out one word: Westeros.
Add a family name: the Lannisters.
Another, the Targaryens.
George R.R. may have been versed in pre-medieval English history and literature (and that certainly would have helped) but, my goodness, didn’t the Muse plunge in for him and light up the board?
There was no way George R.R. could “know” Cersei Lannister or Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister. The novelist and the filmmakers had to kiss caution goodbye and let their imaginations take flight.
The result has held millions spellbound for almost a decade.
When we write what we don’t know, we have no choice but to surrender control.
Good things happen when we do that.
When we write what we don’t know, we station ourselves at the interface between the known and the unknown.
That is a place of wizardry.
A place of power.
Forces far beyond our ken are summoned to this power point by our need and our will and our aspiration and our intention. Inspiration appears. The unborn and the unexpected step forth. Speeches pop from our characters’ mouths that we could not have written if we’d toiled all night or all winter. Our princesses acquire a wardrobe, an arsenal, even a language never before seen.
How does this happen?
Who’s in charge here?
It’s not us, that’s for sure. Or if it is us, we’re helping only a little.
There’s a word for this process.
It’s called fiction.
It’s called fun.
It happens, always, when we write what we don’t know.
Great. Many thanks. Very important for my work. I hope this post will help me all the time.
This post is a keeper and is going up on the wall behind my computer along with some of your past gems. As always, thanks!
I’m thinking about the difference between “putting on your tennies for walk around the neighborhood” versus “strapping on a pair of boots and stepping off into a wilderness.” You’re still getting your steps in, but oh, what you discover.
I’m about halfway through Siddhartha, and marveling at what Hesse did there. This story of a seeker in India, and I’m fully immersed in that place. And this story is coming from a man born to a Baltic German father in a “Swabian Pietist household.” (I admit, y’all, that I have no idea what that even means [as he skulks off to Wikipedia]).
Yes, he spent a year in Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia and the region in his mid-30s, but at some level and at some point, he was surely writing outside the bounds of his personal experience.
Siddartha is one of those re-reads every few years. Read it as a teenager when the home life was chaotic, first time I realized that I was free to choose how I believe, and that there are many paths towards the same goal.
Brian, I admit there are tons of books I feel like I “should” have read before now, and Siddhartha is one of them. And I can see how this would be one I’d come back to, periodically. (“A Sand County Almanac” is another one a person can return to, dipping again from the well.)
And I can imagine that, being at different points in one’s life, one would have different passages that light up. I’m guessing you see things now that you understand better than when you were a teenager. “Many paths toward the same goal” is one that never goes out of style, though.
This passage from Siddhartha has my attention currently, either because (A) I’m evolving to a next spiritual level, or (B) I’m looking for some justification and rationalization not to go out and cut the grass:
“The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish — acquisitiveness. Property, possessions, and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.”
So, you’ve just made me queue up Siddhartha for my next listen/read. That is a powerful statement, and it wasn’t at the top of my mind until you mentioned it. I was only thinking of all the different spiritual paths he took–forgot that he also chose Hedonism.
Of course “War of Art”, “Turning Pro” are also once/twice a year listens as is “Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute, and I have now listened to Ken Follet’s “History Trilogy” a few times. Great stuff. Just bought “A Sand Country Almanac”, I’ll check in when I’m done. Thanks for the tip.
Brian, I’ll put “History Trilogy” on MY list. Appreciated!
Hope you like Aldo Leopold. A conservation legend.
Thanks, Steve. I needed that.
Appreciate this clarity. When I write or speak about/for my son who cannot speak it comes from a connection that is both felt and imagined. Amazing way to unlock the hallway filled with creative doorways, waiting to be entered. Thank you, Brian
Cannot tell you how much I needed this! I’ve been fighting my rational brain that keeps doubting my ability to dive deeply into the book I’ve been trying to write for 2 years! I keep thinking I don’t know enough about the people I’m writing. This permission, relief, complete joy! Thank you!
Yes. I love the way you say things I’ve thought about and shoved aside, thinking I must be crazy. In one law school class we had a one-question exam at the end of the semester. I chose to write a short story to illustrate a moral and ethical dilemma which demonstrated rather than discussed what we learned in class. Prof loved it and I’m pretty sure it was my highest grade on any law school exam (none being too high) because it just flew out of me and onto the page. The muse aced that exam for me, for sure. Thank you for helping me remember how that worked so many years ago, and that it can work for me now, too.
That’s wonderful, Mia!
I needed to read this today Steven, thank you for continuing to make amazing content to keep us in the trenches and our head on a swivel. You are a big part of why I sit my ads in the chair everyday and stop making excuses. Thank you for everything.
Writing about what we don’t know means to me giving space for what we DO know at the deepest level to emerge. What do you all think about that?
I like it, Aiyana. It makes sense. What we do know or think we know is a cement block.
Thank you for this brilliant piece of truth. I’ve pretty much read and treasure all your work, but one piece of advice truly captures the essence of being the typist for the mise.
Thank you again. I’m not a writer, but this ‘start with what you don’t know’ is also valuable. We produce a race that is a fundraiser for our animal rescue. We had not a shred of expertise when we founded the animal rescue, and even less when we decided to create a race.
For the past 9 years I have been fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling through this role as race director. The feelings of doubt are frequent, but when I reach out to ‘professional race directors’…they continue to lead events with declining participation.
Since I have no idea what I’m doing, our ideas remain fresh.
Now I know why writing ‘fact-based fiction’ was so difficult!
“Logic and rationality rarely jibe with the unknowable intangibles of creativity.”
This is in keeping with Shawn’s premise (or maybe it’s yours) to just write and critique later. First give birth, then organize it and see what it is about. The mother doesn’t know what her baby will look like or if it will play the piano ahead of time. The training and raising of the child comes later. Maybe that’s the time when we look and see: What’s this about?
We do draw upon what we have learned, obviously we have learned a language, but in ways we could never have predicted.
I have learned this as an artist. I can never predict what will happen but I need to know my materials.
What we have learned becomes grist. We breathe new life into every experience, memory and creation.
Siddhartha, huh? But have you read Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light?
You know, it might be that if you go this way, you tap onto something that shows you what really happened.
I tend to believe that for the first 3 books mentioned. 🙂
This is great. There are so many things I don’t know!!!
Writing what I don’t know helps tap into my somatic consciousness — where words come after awareness and feeling and magic. Thank you.
I love it!
As much as “the muse” can be of help moving forward writing “the story/book;” can the muse be any part of the answer to the question Gwen, what is holding you back from writing the story/book? Because of “Right Timing”. Too, Hallmark Movie Channel has several movies about “a writer” who has “writer’s block” and they go to a different place and surroundings with the hope to be able to “write” again and fulfill their contract obligation. The movie always end they met new people and low and behold were able to write the story/book and meet their contract obligation. Most times the movie ends with “the writer” staying in the different place and surroundings Can such a “thing” REALLY happen when not being a fictional movie?
I love this, and I couldn’t agree more. On a personal note, writing what we don’t know expands our horizons and opens up new worlds in us. Thanks for another great post, Steven. You always give the best advice at precisely the right time.
Writing what I don’t know applies to the type of writing I do AND to taking a deeper dive into writing my book of life as I am in the midst of stepping fully into a new chapter. Looking forward to seeing what unfolds.
Yay! Thank you thank you for the validation; besides, in my job writing content for clients at a digital ad agency I ALWAYS have to write about what I don’t know – I’m an art major and I find myself having to write about things like investment and finance, lol.
Of course I can’t make that stuff up. But, your advice still holds true, especially in my work as a painter. I would really love to try writing like “true” creative writing someday (like not for advertising or a comic book). I did kind of try once, and I found I had to do a little research maybe or… …but I’d really rather make things up and who cares if it’s credible or not, haha.
I think I like writing and painting about what I don’t know. That’s good. That’s a good idea. That’s something you know instinctively, right, but it’s different when you hear it from someone else (i.e. someone like you). I’m happy to have read this – thank you thank you ^^
As an author of just two novels, who am I to question such advice? But a word of caution is in order to authors like me starting out on their author journey. I wrote my last book, the first in a trilogy, based much on what I know and finished it in about 10 months. Book 2 I’m working on now contains subject matter I knew little about, and almost every scene is proving difficult to write because I am unsure if I understand the subjects properly despite a lot of reading and researching done beforehand and as I write. It’s 18 months now and I still have to finish my first draft.
De hecho, escribir sobre lo que no tenemos conocimiento es el inicio de la creatividad, porque debemos movernos a la cueva donde esta el tesoro por descubrir. Esta bien su blog, escribir sobre lo que no sabemos, es ir a crear fricción, pero de la palabra al hecho hay un tramo que andar y no es fácil andarlo, ese tramo esta cubierto por la incertidumbre y lo desconocido, las dos cosas activan nuestro miedo porque lo que no conocemos nos hace sentir vulnerables. Mi conclusión despues de leer su blog post es, entonces para crear ficción hay que darse permiso de ser vulnerable.
I love your posts, they are short but so rich, and that is very helpful for me as I’m shy about being a natural oversharer. I’m learning that you can say so much in a short post. These lessons have been giving me inspiration for a future blog
This is a wonderful reminder – thank you! Often, I go to a place of, “who am I to write about (fill in the blank).” But the truth remains that I am drawn to write about that subject for some reason. This is a great encouragement to sit down and write anyway.
Thank you for this. At the end of a long day, I needed a reminder of what can be.
Yes! Nice to find another pantser. 🙂 This is the way to write – without knowing and then finding out what surprises are in store – what fun! God bless you, Steven.
“When we write what we don’t know, we have no choice but to surrender control.”
Wow! (I’m adding this to my sticky note collection).
Thanks to you, each week I’m a bit more inspired and one step closer to the finish line.
Its very true, sometimes we can’t express our emotions then by writing we express those unspoken words. We also don’t know what we write. I would like to write short stories but for my main writing work I use this edubirdi I am very happy I got this one now I don’t need to spend time on writing rather than I spend more time in reading . But yeah most of the written work done by myself are short stories.