Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Write What You Don't Know

Everyone has heard the advice given to new writers: "Write what you know."

This might be one of the big lies of writing. Ken Kesey said "Don't write what you know. What you know is boring. Write what you don't know."We need to write about what excites us and what excites us is what's new, the unknown. We want to get out of our comfort zone and explore new territory.Writing is exploring. When we write, we learn new things about characters and what moves them. That's why we write, at least it is for me. Hemingway said that knowledge is found at the point of a pencil, Writing is exploring.

Even writers of history are looking for a new angle on that history. The best histories don't follow well-traveled paths, but step off those paths in search of something new.

I made this point about writing what you don't know in a radio interview i gave on Sunday. You can listen to the interview on my Hawaiian-eye blog. The interviewer asked why my main character in most of my stories is a woman and how I approached that. I explained that I can't be lazy when I write from a woman's POV. I admit that I do have a tendency toward laziness in my writing, especially when I write what I know or when I create a character who resembles me or people I know. Creating characters who are not like me forces me to call on my imagination and explore what I don't know. When I write what I know, the result is flat and boring.

Recently a friend showed me a story she'd written. This person is an excellent writer, but this particular story was not. The story was about some people we both know. Their names were thinly disguised, but the places and most of the incidents in the story were real. Therein lies the problem. The characters in the were flat and uninteresting because my friend had confined herself to only visible, surface features and had not gone into their complexities. She had not delved into the unknown.

How often have you heard that a character was taken from real life, that they "really did that," or they "really talk that way" only to find the character was flat and boring? It's not that real life and real people aren't boring, but that to make them come alive on the page we need to get deep into them and explore what we don't know.

So writers, "Write what you don't know."

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye Blog


Morgan Mandel said...

It's true that I get bored about writing things I know about. So much more fun to let my imagination soar and write about things I don't know.

Morgan Mandel

Ricky Bush said...

Yeah, sometimes we know too much and then put way too much of what we know into a story and those that don't know as much about what we know could care less that we know it. Hmmm...well, I know what I mean by this.

Terry Odell said...

Ah, yes. Early on, my crit group, made up of women going back to school for second "careers" and studying writing would quote their favorite professor. (I always figured I was getting much of their education without having to pay tuition or actually go to class). Anyway, they loved to spout, "Just because it's true doesn't make it good."

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

J D Webb said...

It's much more fun to write what you don't know. The research is a kick, and if you go for a location visit you can write it off on your taxes. Those professors who order us to write what we know, probably haven't had a book published.
Great post.

Mike Dennis said...

Wow! Great post, Mark!

I have always written what I don't know for the very reason you cite: what I know is boring. Oh sure, sometimes what I know will move into my writing, but I always, always leaven it with the unknown. I might stumble on rare occasion, but most of the time I soar.

So many times I see people writing what they know and no more, and it only serves as a vent for their lifelong frustrations. What ends up on the page is stilted and not really suitable for public consumption.

Again, great post.

Earl Staggs said...

Excellent, Mark. I've never subscribed to the "Write what you know" axiom. I'd rather learn something new. Besides, the reason I write fiction is because I can make up stuff if I want to.