Write what you don't know.
I know, it’s the opposite of the proverbial advice to newly-impelled writers. I'm not saying that that’s not true. But so is this.
Here’s my case:
The poet, Charles Wright said “I write to find out what I have to say.” When I first heard that it sounded like a key sliding into a lock. Tumbrils in my brain clicked.
Some writers know going in what they want to get said, but mostly not those writing fiction or poetry, those writing creatively.
People who get the writing itch often start with some image, a feeling, and they want to find out what this disturbance is. Or they may just go for the exhilaration of spelunking in the secret caves below their outward selves. They are after a growth spurt more than a closure.
For example, the writer Annie Proulx (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain, Barkskins) says that she tends to imagine a landscape, watch to see who walks into it, and follows them to see where they go.
Here's another example from the very top of the heap. Someone once approached the great stage director Peter Brook in an airport bar with an obsessive question: Was Shakespeare just a really good writer, or was he something else entirely?
Something else, Brook said emphatically. The playwright was extraordinarily generous with his characters. He never said to them, “Stand here and say what I tell you to.” Instead, he put them forth and then just followed them out to see what they became. They would unfold themselves, and Shakespeare wrote it all down, contradictions, loose ends and all. In iambic pentameter, no less. He listened!
As a result he could write men, women, kings, clowns, characters tragic and hilarious, sometimes both. He understood that life does not reveal all its answers or or deliver in acts, and that’s what makes it endlessly engaging. When Othello asks Iago to explain his evil, the villain refuses. “What you know, you know. From this time forth I will never speak word.”
Did Shakespeare himself even know Iago’s mind? Perhaps not. He knew that much of life remains unclear, and if one tries to clarify everything, it’s just not life any more.
It’s not that you shouldn’t work from your own memories or understandings. Memoir is a time-honored and a fascinating form, both to read and to write. I was once assigned to write some memoir, and I came up with a piece called Kissing My Cousin, set during my summer job as a ranch hand in Wyoming. It came out well enough that it got published, and you can read it here. But even as I was writing I didn’t chase exactness, I chased the feeling and was true to that (though I understand that the cousin in the title felt a bit funny about it).
But most of us who have an urge to write want to find out what we feel and then make readers feel the same thing.
So if you’d like to go outside and play with this a bit, here's a way to unmoor yourself and drift beyond your intentions.
- First, go to a part of town you never go to.
- Next, walk into a strange bar. (A few Harleys parked out front are always a good sign.)
- Order a drink you never normally drink.
- Have a look around.
- Then pull out some paper and write an imagined biography of someone in the bar.
- Don’t worry if it is true, just sip your drink and keep going. You may find a whole new person there inside you, one you never knew. And you’ll discover a big reason to write, which is to find your way to completely new things.
So there it is. Write what you don’t know…and see what what imagining brings to you.
by Sean Kernan
Sean Kernan is a frequent instructor at Santa Fe Writers Lab. He next teaches Creating Writing: A Sense of Beginning, May 14-17, 2018.