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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Writing What You Don't Know

Beginning fiction writers are often urged to "write about what they know." That may be the single most useless, misleading, dangerous piece of advice anyone ever gave a writer. Aside from the surety that most of us don't know anything to begin with, the fact is that we don't write fiction in order to document what we know, but to discover what we don't.

Most of us who write fiction do so in order to find out why a new character is hanging around on the threshold of awareness, what a new obsession means, why we're drawn to a locale or historical period, and what would happen if we put them all together. It's possibility, not certainty, that drives us.

Fiction writing comes close to mysticism. Sometimes, especially in the early stages of a book, I feel as if I am channeling. I started writing The Fool's Journey because of a random image that came into my head: a woman is walking through the clogged aisles Seattle's Pike Place Market. A hand reaches out from the crowd and cuts off a handful of her long red hair. That was it -- to start with. I didn't know who she was, whether she was a random or deliberate victim, or what she was doing in the Market, but I started writing anyway and the ensuing years of writing the book revealed everything.

John Fowles writes of a similar experience:
 The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled The French Lieutenant's Woman] ... started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all.
Alice Walker says,
If you're silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.
 Sometimes a "what if" moment starts a story, as Roald Dahl jots in his notebook:
What about a chocolate factory that makes fantastic and marvelous things--with a crazy man running it?
Fowles, Walker and Dahl clearly did not find their way into their stories by writing what they knew about.  Each was led into a mysterious realm where nothing was known, but everything to find out. Writing what we already know is an assignment. Writing to discover is a quest. I am working on two books right now. One, a serialized sequel to Pride and Prejudice, came about because I have always wondered what became of Mary and Kitty Bennet. I am writing to find out.

The other project, my next paranormal mystery, was triggered by a question a woman asked me at a party about fifteen years ago. I had tagged along with other friends and, as they were showing me around the beautiful old craftsman, we came upon the darkened nursery where the hostess was putting her baby to sleep. The walls were lined with old toys, many of them antique dolls. As I began to look more closely at them, the hostess came up to my side and asked, "Do you think a doll can be haunted?" There's more to this story, but it was her question that stayed with me and finally found its way into a story. So far, I've discovered a little about two characters, I know there will be a haunted doll and I sense that reincarnation will play a part. I'm well ahead of the game on this one.

Well, fiction writers are odd people. We all know that. But does "writing what you don't know" work for non-fiction as well? Let's see what the writers say:
Rachel Carson: The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what the subject has to say.
V.S. Pritchett: I write to clear my own mind, to find out what I think and feel.
C. Day Lewis: We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand.
I am constantly surprised by what I write in this blog. That's what makes it fun. I start with the germ of an idea that's been echoing in my brain, like one of those songs you can't get rid of -- ear worms, I understand they are called. Perhaps these are "thought worms," boring their ways from our unconscious through subconscious to consciousness until we're either driven to find out why they're there, or something more pressing -- or catchy-- displaces them.

I ask myself whether this all means writing teachers should stop giving their students "prompts" for story writing or structured assignments that focus on character development and scene structure. Do they produce anything readable? Not in my experience. Do they enlighten the writer? Unlikely. Instead, students should have the opportunity to pursue writing as if they were writers rather than monkeys.

We write to find out what we don't know. With pen or keyboard in hand, we enter our strange minds not knowing what's up there, and step into a sprawling Winchester Mystery House of memory, desire, fear and delight. We'll find nothing we're looking for and everything we're not.

Let's follow the hall to the upside-down window, climb the stairs that lead four ways, rattle the bars that fly away like owls into the night -- and write without fear, without guidance, and without expectation.

All quotes plucked from my friend Donald M. Murray's remarkable Shoptalk: Learning to write with writers.


  1. What a great post, Mary. You get to the very nub of what it means to be a writer. Thanks! ~Anne Manning

  2. Thanks so much, Anne -- a real compliment coming from you! M