Monday, November 28, 2011

Reflections from the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Write What You Don’t Know

It’s one of writing’s ten commandments: Write what you know. And like so many chiseled-in-stone maxims, there’s a certain amount of broad wisdom in it. Effective writing comes from being on intimate terms with the subject matter. Knowing what you’re talking or writing about. Readers instill their trust and maybe even $24.95 for a hardcover version of this expertise. But I think it’s equally important to write what you don’t know. So does Russell Banks, author of several critically acclaimed (and also really good) books including Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, and Rule of the Bone.

I was in the audience at a reading Banks gave recently at a local library. He was on the road doing publicity for his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. I quietly slinked into an open seat in the last row of chairs, as I was running late and Banks had already started reading from his book. He then opened the floor for questions from the audience of suburban literary aficionados.

For me, this is always the most interesting portion of any author reading. You never know what kind of questions you’ll hear from the audience, or how well the author will live up to the skewed expectations that many bring to the experience of meeting someone they admire. On both accounts, the audience and the author were ideal. The audience focused their questions on Banks’ new novel, and he gave thoughtful, detailed answers.

One question posed by a middle-age woman was directed toward Banks’ research for his new novel, which delves into the world of a young convicted sex offender. As part of his answer, Banks championed the notion of “writing what you don’t know,” explaining that he typically came to his creative ideas by way of a question, of being curious about something. This curiosity then led to research and learning and writing about a previously unfamiliar topic.

It’s hard to imagine a literary world based solely on the notion of “write what you know.” In the whole scope of human experience, each of us individually is rather limited in what we know, in direct, experiential knowledge. I don’t know the first thing about carving totem poles, or future developments in sex doll technology, or the birth of the electric guitar, but I’ve become fascinated by and researched each of these topics and written about them.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, writing is an imaginative endeavor. And the imagination is boundless. Why limit yourself to only “what you know?” What Russell Banks was getting at is that by writing what you don’t know about, you’re guided by your own enthusiasm to learn something new. You’re guided by your imagination. This is the horse you want to hitch your chariot to.

You may not know exactly where the journey will take you, but it’s going to be exciting. And that excitement will carry over into your writing. Inspired writing ultimately makes for good writing, and your readers will have an engaged reading experience as a result. And at the end of the day, most readers will value a story that engrosses and pulls them along over a story that merely divulges the writer’s “expertise.”

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