One of the classic pieces of advice about writing is to “write what you know.”
Like all good pieces of advice, it’s begging to be countermanded.
So today I offer you this piece of advice:
Write what you don’t know.
Imagine people in places and situations you’ve never been in. Use your empathy to portray what a human going through that experience might think and feel and say.
So much good writing comes out of being willing to take the risk to write what we don’t know.
Madeleine L’Engle, the wonderful author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other books, talks about this phenomenon when she says, “Our work knows more than we know.”
In an interview L’Engle once described this fascinating tidbit: Ed Mitchell, the second astronaut who walked on the moon, often had the task of describing scientific concepts of space to laymen. He found it very difficult to do, and he would tell them, “There’s this book that really [describes space] far better than I could. It’s supposed to be a children’s book. It really isn’t. It’s called A Wrinkle in Time.”
“Now,” L’Engle says, “what this tells me is that my book knows more about physics than I know, and I find that intensely exciting.”
Stephen Pressfield, author of The War of Art, tells a similar story. His first screenplay was set in a prison. He’d never been arrested, but when the script was done, people would take him aside and ask, “Hey man, where’d you do time?”
When we write from a deeper place of knowing – from the collective subconscious – our writing knows more than we know.
My publisher just sent me this note from the copyeditor who’s working on my book:
“Catchlight really hit home for me. I lost my dad to complications of Alzheimer’s, which exacerbated the emphysema that had begun during his years in submarines during World War II.
He was one of the rare individuals who didn’t experience the personality changes that often accompany the disease; he maintained his calm, loving personality throughout. We were “fortunate” that the emphysema took him before he lost his ability to recognize us; that would have been SO much worse, at least for me. My dad also had that one, entirely lucid day, only his was about a week before he passed.
Brooke conveys the experience of a child going through this terrible experience so well and honestly. Been there; lived that. She got it right.”
I’ve never been a child experiencing the loss of a parent to Alzheiimer’s disease.
But I’ve imagined this experience deeply.
The idea for this novel came to me shortly after the death of my grandmother. While I could imagine what my dad and his siblings went through as her decline into dementia worsened, I was away at college for the duration of her illness and did not experience it firsthand.
Instead, I used all the finely tuned empathy I could muster to imagine what a person in this situation might feel and think and say.
Then I wrote the best book I could.
Then I revised it 8,542 times.
I’m so honored that the book I’ve spent years writing is touching the hearts of readers.
Write what you don’t know. There’s so much richness there.
P.S. If you’re ready to deepen your writing practice, you’ll want to join my brand-new membership community, Write Yourself Free. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you all the details.
It’s just $35/month and there’s no long-term commitment.
Email me and I’ll tell you all about it.
May 1, 2020